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Big Sky schools implement mask mandate ahead of semester

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In 2021, students at Ophir Elementary School returned to 100 percent in-person learning on Jan. 11 with precautions in place like these plexiglass dividers between students. Leading into the 2021-22 school year, the school board voted to require masks and put in place many of the same precautions seen last year. PHOTO BY BRITTANY SHIRLEY

Board makes ‘pivot to safety’

By Mira Brody and Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the Montana High School Association. All instances have been corrected to refer to the Montana School Boards Association.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Montana is the only state that has banned vaccine requirements. The article has been corrected to specify that the same law applies to governmental entities including public schools and that Montana is the only state that has banned vaccine requirements for employees.

BIG SKY – The Big Sky School District School Board at an Aug. 24 emergency meeting voted unanimously to require masks for all K-12 students and staff returning to school this year. 

The vote was preceded by an extensive discussion which included public comments both submitted ahead of time and presented in the meeting. Among public comments received ahead of the school board meeting, 10 comments supported the mask mandate, three comments preferred an optional masking policy and one commenter advocated for a revival of the COVID-19 surveillance testing program.

Now, the plan is for students to return to 100 percent in-person learning on Aug. 30 with masks required, cleaning and disinfecting procedures in place, temperature checks at the doors, and physical distancing. The pod system will be used when necessary to maintain distancing when the size of the facility doesn’t allow for appropriate spacing.

The vote on the school district’s COVID-19 Emergency Policy 1905 regarding face coverings reverses the board’s July 30 decision to make mask wearing optional. At its July meeting, the board noted they would continue to look for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and revisit their decision closer to the start of the school year.

The board considered three options provided by the Montana School Boards Association as well as guidance on how to factor recent legislation into their decision. House Bill 702, which on May 7 passed through the Montana Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte, prohibits agencies and businesses from requiring vaccines. Montana is currently the only state in the U.S. with a law banning vaccine requirements for employees. The same law applies to governmental entities including public schools.

 MTSBA options included requiring masks for all students and staff, leaving mask wearing as optional, or requiring masks for a specific age group or set of grade levels. 

Each trustee offered their respective opinion on the options, as did the public. 

Board Chair Loren Bough wrote in an email to EBS that he was proud of the way the board focused on three issues: “health and safety of students and staff, providing in-person instruction with reduced risk of interruption, and reflecting the values and beliefs of our community in Big Sky.”

Trustee Matt Jennings said he wished to begin the school year cautiously and ease up as the situation develops. The rest of the trustees were in agreement, preferring the most sweeping of the MTSBA options which requires all students, faculty and staff to mask up. 

Bough voiced a shared concern over the board’s responsibility to protect younger students between ages 5-12 who cannot yet receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The majority of public comment received during the meeting aligned with this concern and commentors advocated for mask wearing.

“The Board made a pivot to safety,” wrote Bough. “Masks improve the health and safety of the school, particularly for the 5-to-12-year-old learners who do not have an option to protect themselves with a vaccination.”

Sabrina Sigourney, parent of two children in the district, submitted a comment to Shipman ahead of the school board meeting expressing support for the optional masking policy. She also responded to an EBS request for comment, writing, “COVID-19 is a virus we need to learn to live with, so it is imperative we reduce the disruption to children and young people’s education—particularly given that the direct clinical risks to children are very low, and everyone over the age of 12 has been offered a vaccine.”

Bough said there is another opt-in testing program in the works for the 2021-22 school year that would provide weekly tests for students. The program would cost approximately $20,000 a week, he said. Bough said the new effort would receive funding from charitable foundations and Shipman added that the school will also pursue funding through the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

Shipman said the goal will be to garner a similar level of participation in the program as last year to provide the most accurate data that the school board and administrators can use to make informed decisions. While the proposal hasn’t yet been finalized, Shipman said the program would likely be able to provide results within the same day.

The board also took into consideration the decisions of other school boards across Montana. Schools nationwide are grappling over issuing mask mandates, especially as the Delta variant, the more contagious mutation of COVID-19, causes spikes in illness and hospitalizations.

“A record number of kids are being hospitalized and that’s what’s different about Delta variant,” said Bozeman Health Pediatrician Dr. Pepper Henyon during an Aug. 20 Gallatin County press call, although health professionals aren’t sure yet why this is. Henyon added that although half of these hospitalized kids have underlying conditions such as asthma and obesity, the other half have minimal or no underlying conditions.

On Aug. 24, the Bozeman School District board also supported masking in its school system. In a 7-1 vote, the board approved policy changes that allowed the superintendent to require masks for students, staff and visitors, a mandate that went into effect immediately. 

Billings School District reversed its mask optional policy following a COVID-19 outbreak among a district sports team. Butte School District will also require masks for the first four weeks of school starting Aug. 31, and the Great Falls School District is mandating masks for students pre-K through sixth grade and recommending mask use for middle and high school students after COVID-19 cases in Cascade County reached the threshold of “high” transmission.

In addition to passing a mask mandate, the Big Sky School Board also unanimously passed a motion on Policy 1903, requiring that all visitors to the school wear masks. The exception to this policy is that masks will be optional for all outdoor extracurricular activities. 

The board also passed Policy 1908, which defines only three instances where children will be allowed to make use of the virtual/distance learning option: when students are immunocompromised as attested to by a doctor, when students have been exposed to COVID-19 or are in quarantine, and on a case-by-case basis determined by other health concerns.

At an Aug. 23 Big Sky Town Hall discussion hosted by EBS that covered the Delta variant and returning students to the classroom, panelist Jason Moore, PhD epidemiologist and a PA in emergency medicine, noted that an increase in cases of kids contracting COVID-19 is being attributed to the Delta variant.

“The people that are getting the sickest are the unvaccinated,” Moore said. “That we know. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts,” he added, referencing a quote from U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “That is taking all politics out of it, all conjecture. That is one fact that we know.”

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