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Unmasked attendees prompt Kalispell School Board to adjourn meeting

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | September 9, 2020 2:40 PM

A Kalispell School Board meeting was adjourned shortly after it began Tuesday when a group of people showed up refusing to wear masks in accordance with Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide mask mandate.

About 20 people, who weren’t wearing masks, showed up at the 6 p.m. meeting at Flathead High School, which also had an option for people to join remotely.

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, and before public comment began, the board told members of the audience they were required to wear masks in schools and asked people to put them on. When they didn’t comply, trustees decided to hold a 5-minute recess for individuals to get masks and put them on, according to Kalispell School Board Vice Chairman Jack Fallon. People still didn’t comply, so trustees unanimously decided to adjourn and reconvene remotely in a virtual format at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“Instead of having confrontations we decided to adjourn the meeting,” Fallon said.

“We set the board meeting 48 hours out, so we could give advance notice of the meeting in alignment with open meeting laws,” Kalispell School Board Chairman Lance Isaak said, adding that the district had consulted with legal counsel prior to the meeting.

“It was well-known this group was going to be at this meeting,” Isaak said.

Both Fallon and Isaak said they had received numerous emails and were forwarded social media posts that members of an “anti-mask group” intended to attend the meeting.

Kalispell Police Department school resource officers were also present at the meeting — and at a coinciding volleyball game — but were not there to enforce mask wearing, Kalispell Police Department Investigations Officer Jim Wardensky emphasized. Wardensky supervises the school resource officer program.

“We’re there to exclusively keep the peace and we weren’t going to engage citizens in the mask-wearing aspects of it. That was up to the school district to address that,” Wardensky said, noting the same held true at a past county Fair Board meeting when people not wearing masks also showed up. That meeting concluded without incident.

The Kalispell City Council also recently decided to switch to an online meeting format because people in the audience declined to wear masks.

“Face coverings” were on Tuesday’s Kalispell School Board meeting agenda for possible action, but this is not the first time the district has discussed and taken action on wearing masks in schools. The district approved requiring all staff and students wear masks at school in August. In addition to reopening schools for on-site instruction, students and families were given the option to learn remotely. Tuesday’s agenda item was to define and provide examples of “acceptable face coverings.” It remains on the agenda for Thursday.

Parent Shaun Pandina, who sought support from the group Montanans Unmasked, was one of the people in attendance who was not wearing a mask. The aim of Montanans Unmasked is to “keep masks voluntary in Montana,” according to www.montanansunmasked.com.

“The whole reason we were there was to protest against the children being forced to wear masks for various reasons,” said Pandina, whose two children currently attend Kalispell Public Schools for on-site learning.

He said his children have medical conditions, which he didn’t want to disclose, and that it’s a struggle for them to wear masks in school. He said he tried to submit a medical note from a chiropractor, but the district wouldn’t recognize it because it wasn’t from a medical doctor.

“My daughter has to go to the hallway and take her mask down until she’s recovered to come to the classroom. It’s affecting her ability to learn. It’s affecting her ability to breathe,” Pandina said.

Pandina said his children’s only alternative to not wearing masks was enrolling in remote learning, which he doesn’t think affords them the same opportunities that on-site learning does.

Kalispell Public Schools does allow students to wear face shields as an alternative to fabric or surgical masks, that sit directly over the nose and mouth. However, if the district’s recommended definition for acceptable face coverings is approved Thursday, people wearing face shields would be required to pair it with a mask or face shield drape.

To join Thursday’s remote board meeting visit www.sd5.k12.mt.us, scroll down to “calendar and events” and click on the board meeting link.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.