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This month marks two years since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Montana.

Two years of uncertainty, fear, frustration, exhaustion and increased political and societal polarization in nearly every aspect of daily life. Two years of grappling with thorny questions about how we protect our most vulnerable citizens, safely educate our children, effectively run our businesses, and pay our rent or mortgage. Two years of debates over personal responsibility, responsibility to fellow citizens, and individual liberty. 

The pandemic has reshaped the world in ways we may not fully understand for decades. But when future historians examine the arc of human civilization during the 21st century, our current moment will likely stand as a significant turning point for our state, our nation, and our planet. 

Alex Sakariassen’s story examining the growing parental rights movement in Montana is a classic example of journalism’s role in documenting a first rough draft of history, offering a revealing glimpse into how the pandemic has served as a catalyst for a public education uprising.  

“It’s not just about masking,” Alex writes. “Opposition to pandemic-induced policies has opened a fissure in the public education conversation, exposing an undercurrent of frustration and distrust about what schools are teaching and how.”

Alex’s deeply reported piece explores how the pandemic has highlighted fundamental disagreements over what public education should even be:

“Schools nationwide have tried in recent decades to create a safer, more supportive environment for their most at-risk and vulnerable students. Classrooms have become more than just a place to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. In recognition of the needs of marginalized student populations, schools have increasingly expanded their mission to help encourage healthy socialization, emotional well-being, tolerance of difference and critical thinking skills. Such lessons inevitably overlap with personal values, leading to accusations of politically driven indoctrination and, in some cases, a view that teachers should stick strictly to fact-based learning.”

All across Montana, public schools are at the center of heated debates that, on the surface, appear to be about how to keep kids safe and well during a pandemic. But as Alex’s reporting shows, those debates aren’t likely to end now that the masks are finally coming off.

John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

By the Numbers 🔢

Monthly retainer fee being paid by the Montana Department of Justice to the law office owned by Emily Jones, a Billings attorney and law school classmate of Attorney General Austin Knudsen. As MTFP reported this week, Jones, whose husband is a prominent GOP political strategist, is taking a leading role in helping the department manage a civil case docket that includes the slate of bill challenge cases being tracked by MTFP’s Laws on Trial project.

—Eric Dietrich, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄 

Credit: Pat Flowers

In a show of solidarity with Ukraine, Montana state Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, organized a March 1 effort to light the Gallatin County Courthouse in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“It’s a way to send a little light into a really dark set of circumstances,” Flowers said to a small crowd gathered outside the courthouse Tuesday evening, as reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

The following day, Gov. Greg Gianforte initiated a process to start divesting Russian assets held by the state.

“The State of Montana will not support Russia’s war against Ukraine through our assets or operations. We will do all we can to remove any benefit that supports or advances Russia’s vicious war machine,” Gianforte said in a letter to state agencies. “Montana stands with Ukraine.”

Response to the Russian invasion among Montana’s congressional delegates in Washington D.C. was more of a mixed bag.

Sen. Jon Tester has called for the U.S. to expand domestic production of renewable and fossil fuel-based energy sources and ban oil and gas imports from Russia, saying such measures will “hit Putin where it hurts.”

Sen. Steve Daines has said he’s praying for the people of Ukraine, and also centered energy in his remarks. “If @Joe Biden is serious about stopping Putin, he would unleash American energy production,” he said in a March 1 Tweet.

Rep. Matt Rosendale has also called for the banning of oil and gas imports from Russia, but established himself as an outlier as one of just three U.S. representatives to vote against a House resolution supporting Ukraine.

“I cannot support the resolution to send unlimited military, monetary and humanitarian aid to Ukraine when the United States is failing to deal with the crises impacting the safety and well being of the American people,” he told NBC Montana. Rosendale identified border security, the opioid epidemic, energy dominance, inflation and crime as issues that should take priority.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

Following the Law ⚖️ 

Seated at his bench in the second-floor chambers of Missoula’s federal courthouse Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy leveled his eyes at Montana Assistant Solicitor General Christian Corrigan. Lips moving behind a blue surgical mask, Molloy asked Corrigan if he admits that Montana’s new vaccination anti-discrimination law conflicts with a federal vaccine mandate for health care workers. Corrigan responded that it does, if the federal regulation is valid.

“So you are hedging, but not admitting, that there is a conflict between the federal rule and the state statute?” Molloy asked. Corrigan returned to an assertion he’d already made several times: The health care associations and providers challenging the new state law have yet to show they’d suffer “irreparable harm” for either following or violating it.

Thursday’s exchange was part of the latest hearing in a case brought by the Montana Medical Association and other plaintiffsagainst House Bill 702, and the immediate question on Molloy’s plate was whether to grant an injunction blocking enforcement of the law in certain health care facilities. Corrigan, representing the state, argued Molloy shouldn’t. Plaintiffs’ attorneys Justin Cole and Raph Graybill argued he should, saying their clients face an impossible choice: Comply with the federal rule and risk legal and human rights complaints for violating HB 702, or comply with state statute knowing they may lose critical federal Medicare and Medicaid dollars as a result.

The conversation had a wrinkle, though, one that inspired Corrigan’s “if” caveat. The federal rule itself is embroiled in a legal tug-of-war, with two lawsuits seeking to overturn it now pending in separate appellate courts. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rule in January, knocking down injunctions in both cases and requiring employees of hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or secure vaccine exemptions by March 21. But with legal challenges still active, the final fate of President Joe Biden’s health care worker vaccination mandate remains to be seen.

And so Molloy put it to both sides Thursday: Given that great unknown, how would they fashion an injunction against HB 702? Corrigan suggested applying one only to plaintiffs who have demonstrated irreparable harm from following or violating the state law — a bar, he suggested, that no plaintiff had met. Graybill said the law should be blocked only to the extent that it impacts Medicare- and Medicaid-funded facilities, and conceded that an injunction could be designed to account for the possibility of a court striking down the federal rule in the future. However, he argued, the state should not ask plaintiffs to simply “flout state law” that the state has so vigorously defended. 

Molloy closed the hearing by telling both parties he’ll likely issue a short ruling on the injunction request soon and follow up with a longer explanation, or even a final order, later this month. Before rising from the bench, he threw in a short summation: “Interesting issues.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda Eggert — Wyofile marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of Yellowstone National Park with a sweeping look at some of the park’s missteps and successes over the past century and a half. The story also highlights park superintendent Cam Sholly’s current initiatives to integrate more Native American perspectives into the region’s narrative, create affordable housing for employees and manage an ever-swelling tide of visitors.

Mara Silvers — This story from ProPublica and San Francisco Public Press is one of the best local accountability articles I’ve read in quite a while. It’s a reminder that even robust government programs can have plenty of holes for people to fall through, regardless of good intentions. 

Alex Sakariassen — In my non-work hours this past week, I’ve had my eyes pretty well glued to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And so far, the most impactful stories I’ve heard are the personal accounts from Ukrainians themselvescaptured on the streets of Kyiv in several episodes of the New York Times’ The Daily podcast by national correspondent Sabrina Tavernise.

Eric Dietrich — Brett French over at the Billings Gazette took a good look this week at how the pandemic injected rocket fuel into the state’s rural real estate market, boosting 2021 sales to 1.2 million acres, versus 800,000 in 2020. “It started with COVID refugees and then expanded to political and social refugees,” one broker told him.

* Some articles may be behind a paywall.