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Statewide rule urges schools to consider ‘parental rights’ in mask mandates

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BSSD mask policy to remain in place

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

HELENA – A new statewide emergency rule is urging school districts to consider “parental rights” over health mandates, pointing specifically to mask wearing. School officials, however, including those in the Big Sky School District, say the law won’t change their requirements.

The rule, issued by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and announced by Gov. Greg Gianforte on Aug. 31, says schools should take into account parents’ concerns over whether or not health-related mandates—masking in particular—are healthy for their children, citing “health, religious, moral, or other fundamental rights reasons.” 

“[School districts] should consider, and be able to demonstrate consideration of, parental concerns when adopting a mask mandate,” the rule states.

Dustin Shipman, superintendent for BSSD in Big Sky says this does not change the district’s mask requirement that was voted on and approved by the school board on Aug. 24.

“We reviewed the emergency rule that was issued by the DPHHS and we read the rule as permissive and other school districts are reading it and interpreting it the same way,” Shipman said. “It specifically provides that school districts should consider parental concern and we spent a long time considering parental concern via public comments that lead up to the school board decision.”

The Bozeman School District, which passed its own mask policy on Aug. 23, reacted similarly, stating that its mask requirements will remain in place and are in line with the new emergency rule.

Shipman says since BSSD’s mask mandate was implemented, he hasn’t seen a notable pushback from parents. In addition to mask wearing, district classrooms have cleaning and disinfecting procedures in place, temperature checks at the doors and physical distancing inside buildings.

The emergency rule cites psychosocial health and developmental need, among other concerns, for children with face coverings. EBS received announcement of the emergency rule in an email at 11:42 a.m. on Aug. 31 from Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke. Fourteen minutes later, Stroyke sent a second email with the subject line, “Research Report: Mask Mandate in Schools.”

The report listed approximately 60 excerpts and links to sources disputing the effectiveness of mask wearing in children. Among other sources, the email included articles from New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, an opinion piece from The Wall Street Journal, tweets from doctors on Twitter, and an excerpt from a 2020 World Health Organization study suggesting children under the age of 5 shouldn’t wear masks. 

“Unfortunately, mandating masks for students is based on inconclusive research that fails to prove masks’ effectiveness in reducing the incidence of COVID-19 in the classroom,” Gianforte said in the Aug. 31 statement. “Simply put, our children shouldn’t be subject to arbitrary mask mandates when schools can’t follow the science because there’s a lack of meaningful, reliable research.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended “indoor masking for all individuals age 2 years and older, including students, teachers, staff, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.”

Gallatin City-County Health Officer Lori Christenson said nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as hand washing, wearing masks and staying home when you’re sick, are proven methods of slowing the transmission of viruses, including COVID-19. “We know masks work, we know that they can be effective in reducing transmission, the wellbeing of students and families in the wider community,” she said.

“We want to protect kids and we want to keep kids in school,” Christenson added. “As a public health agency [and] as a public health official, I applaud decisions made by all area schools that have required masks in their schools.”

The temporary emergency rule will remain in place “no longer than 120 days after the date of adoption,” according to the rule.

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