Superintendent of Public Instruction Else Arntzen speaks at a parental rights rally at the state Capitol on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

HELENA — During a rally on the steps of the Montana Capitol Friday, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, talked about the importance of deep breathing. She recalled a childhood spent doing yoga alongside her mother, learning how breathing can control emotions, energy and nerves. But more than a therapeutic aid, she said, breathing is right bestowed by God.

“Can there be anything more inalienable than the right to breathe freely?” Manzella asked the crowd, the majority of which was assembled in rows behind her.

Before she could answer herself, several voices spoke up, responding “No.”

The rally, organized by a coalition of parental rights groups across the state, was meant to celebrate the effective date of a new law barring government agencies from interfering with the “fundamental rights of parents” to direct the education, health and upbringing of their children. Senate Bill 400, sponsored by Manzella, passed on largely party lines this year and was signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte May 12. But as Manzella’s speech and the scores of signs held by many attendees made clear, the prevailing topic of the day was far more specific.

“When I have been forced to put on a mask, I immediately find that my respiration shortens, I become closed in,” Manzella said. “My whole psyche is demented by this mask, this face diaper. So we have to protect our children’s right to breathe freely.”

Face masks have become the source of heated division in Montana throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Debate continues to rage over their effectiveness as a public health intervention, despite efforts by the medical community to highlight the science supporting their use. The often bitter divide has embroiled public schools, fueling tense school board meetings and lawsuits challenging school masking orders in Missoula and Bozeman. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen has repeatedly emphasized that masking is an issue for local decision-making, but has also appeared at parental rights rallies including the one held Friday arguing that local school officials must take parental concerns into account.

Against a backdrop of signs reading “Masks Hurt Kids” and “My Child My Responsibility,” Arntzen told the crowd Friday that local control requires that students, parents and school board officials are all respected — her call for respecting the latter eliciting a number of boos. She indicated that her office is currently working on a solution that will include “opt-outs and accommodations that fulfill the educational potential of each child.” Arntzen also cited recent findings from the Montana Public Schools Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicating that 41% of responding students were “suffering from feelings of hopelessness and isolation.”

“We support the parent’s right to make a choice on behalf of their child and their circumstances and their medical situation, all of it. If the family feels it’s in the best interests of the child to wear a mask, then we want to support freedom for parents to make decisions on behalf of their children.”

Jenna Mckinney, Montana Family Rights Alliance

Asked by Montana Free Press after her speech to elaborate on her office’s proposal in progress, Arntzen said she plans to use the Office of Public Instruction’s rulemaking process to enhance communication between local school boards and parents. Arntzen declined to say directly whether the desires of parents should outweigh the policies adopted by those boards, but she did state that health care decisions are the business of families and their medical providers alone, adding that she firmly believes “the virus itself is a health care decision.”

“We have a challenge right now because there’s a blend between health care decisions and educational decisions,” she said. “I’m standing and drawing a line in the sand: health care decisions go with experts in health care. I was a teacher of 23 years. Teachers are not equipped to make any health care determination.”

According to records obtained by MTFP from the Montana Department of Administration, two permit applications were submitted for the event, one by the Montana Family Rights Alliance and the other by OPI for a “press conference with constituents involved.” On the far side of the Capitol, a handful of people including Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, convened a counterprotest. A flyer for that event encouraged attendees to “bring signs to hold with encouraging messages supporting our schools, science-based decision making and leaders who prioritize protecting our children and teacher’s health.”

Jenna McKinney, a Bozeman resident and member of the Montana Family Rights Alliance, was one of the primary organizers of Friday’s rally. She said in an interview that parents across the state feel they’re being ignored by local school officials in discussions about masking policies. Her organization is trying to make those voices heard not because they’re anti-mask or anti-vaccine, she continued, but because they are “pro-freedom.”

“We support the parent’s right to make a choice on behalf of their child and their circumstances and their medical situation, all of it,” McKinney said. “If the family feels it’s in the best interests of the child to wear a mask, then we want to support freedom for parents to make decisions on behalf of their children.”

One of the parents gathered Friday, Helena resident Charlotte Sanborn, said her daughter was set to start public school this fall. But after the district issued a mandatory mask order for all students under the age of 12, she decided to homeschool her daughter instead. Sanborn believes such policies have put parents across Montana in an extremely difficult situation and deprived their children of the quality education they’re entitled to.

“I’m not here for myself,” Sanborn told MTFP. “I’m here for all the women who can’t be here because they’re working. They have emailed their school boards, they have shown up to meetings, they have called their superintendents, they have protested, and they’re worn out and they’re exhausted.”

Sanborn further argued that school boards face no financial consequence for implementing policies that prompt some parents to unenroll their children, since Congress has approved billions in COVID-19 relief funding in part to fill enrollment-related gaps in state funding. Sanborn added that she approached Arntzen at the event with a request: that she lobby the Legislature to commission a study on the effects of mask wearing on children.

“I want to see a long-term randomized controlled study that shows there are no negative psychological or physical impacts on our children’s health,” Sanborn said. “And that study does not exist.”

After the event, roughly two dozen rally attendees walked across the street from the Capitol lawn to take a photograph outside the Helena office of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, a union representing public school teachers that was among the groups denounced during several of the day’s speeches. As much of the crowd departed, several people continued to shout “freedom” at passing vehicles. 

One woman, walking across the lawn with her preschool-age grandson, wore a mask. She asked that MTFP not use her name, but indicated that she was looking for the counterprotest, which had since dispersed. A recent transplant to Helena from New England, she motioned to her grandson, seated on the grass, noting that he’s too young to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The only tool she has to keep him safe is masking, she said, gazing toward the lingering rally crowd.

“To me, to stand down there and holler freedom, that’s putting your personal choice over somebody else’s safety. That’s not safety in my world. That’s selfishness.” 

That the state superintendent of public instruction would attend such a rally, she said, is “mind-boggling.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.