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Masks will be optional at Kalispell Public Schools

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | August 11, 2021 4:00 PM

Wearing masks will be optional — but strongly encouraged — at Kalispell Public Schools following a unanimous decision by the school board on Tuesday.

The district's mask guidelines are subject to change as coronavirus infections surge again in the Flathead Valley. The board gave Superintendent Micah Hill the authority to require masks if the active case count rises "to the point of threatening school closures," according to an email the district sent out on Wednesday.

"It is our priority to keep our schools open and maintain onsite instruction," the email stated. "If face coverings are required, the superintendent will send an email to students, parents and staff of the affected building by 3 p.m. for the following school day."

Students still must wear masks while riding school buses, regardless of vaccination status, under federal law.

With the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant, increases in Flathead County COVID-19 cases, and changing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, Hill said a lot has changed since June when the district reviewed its Safe Return to School and Continuity of Services Plan.

The district is in Phase III of that plan, meaning it's closest to school resuming as normal, with buildings open, onsite learning and crowd sizes that may exceed 50 people. On the other end of the phased approach, buildings are closed and all classes are taught remotely.

LIMITED OPPORTUNITIES for remote instruction may be available in the coming school year, but will not be as extensive as last year's offerings due to budget and staffing constraints.

The district will continue efforts to mitigate the virus through physical distancing; frequent hand sanitizing and washing; disinfection of buildings and equipment; improved air filtration and ventilation; temperature checks; and encouraging anyone who feels sick to stay home.

At the elementary level, staff also will take efforts to establish cohorts of students, typically by grade level, to minimize the number of people children come into contact with.

Quarantine and isolation protocols established by the CDC and required by the Flathead City-County Health Department will remain in effect.

Current protocols account for a person's vaccination status. Anyone 12 and older is eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which factored into Hill's recommendation to lift the mask requirement.

Extracurricular activities will resume as normal unless otherwise notified by the Montana High School Association.

HILL'S RECOMMENDATION to make masks optional was well received by most of the 15 people who spoke during the public comment period of Tuesday's school board meeting.

Hill said he had received 26 emails since July 27 asking for masks to be mandatory and eight emails advocating they be optional.

"Parents absolutely have the right to decide," community member Devin Decker said during the meeting.

Parent Nicole Schubert also advocated for masks to be optional, saying she moved to Montana from another state where her family had experienced a year in lockdown, which took an emotional toll on her son.

"I want to commend you for keeping the schools open," Schubert said.

Diane Taylor-Mahnke was among a few in attendance who argued masks should be mandatory due to the infectiousness of the delta variant among children.

"It's not fair to little kids who are not eligible to get vaccinated to expose them to people like the lady who just said her children can't wear masks [due to health reasons]. Make the exception they don't have to if they have a medical reason for it," Taylor-Mahnke said. "But I have a great-great-niece who's going to be in third grade next year who has asthma."

LOGAN HEALTH also advocated for mask-wearing in a letter to the school district.

"Given the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 and that Flathead County is currently in an area defined by high transmission, new CDC guidance (along with the American Academy of Pediatrics) recommend that face masks be worn in indoor school settings," the letter noted. "As health care providers in this valley, we support these recommendations and feel that this is likely the safest way to proceed into the new school year.

"However, we recognize that taking into account the current community and state climate likely makes a mask mandate controversial and difficult to require," the letter stated. "We also recognize that masking during the school day is only one piece of a larger puzzle, and if kids leave the school setting and are exposed to unmasked people in the evenings and on weekends, then this may limit the benefits of masking in schools."

Before the board voted Tuesday, Hill said he sought out data from the local health department on the number of active cases among school-aged children, and looked at recent legislation such as House Bill 702, which prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status.

Hill also noted the backlash the district faced during the last school year when masks were required — student and parent protests outside school buildings, canceled and online-only board meetings and a heated trustee election season.

"One of the things I really struggled with, and struggled to wrap my head around, is how can school districts be the only, and 'only' is a pretty strong word, but the only organization that is going to require anybody to mask in a community and in a state that doesn't support that?" Hill said.

Republican Rep. John Fuller of Whitefish, who taught at Flathead High School for 14 years, said nonverbal cues are an important way of communicating with students and masks get in the way of that.

"As a co-sponsor of House Bill 702, the idea behind that is that people need to be responsible for their own children and their own health and, consequently, I believe what you have here is a measured approach," Fuller said. "And optional masks is the only commonsense approach in my opinion, and I commend you for taking this view and having kids in school."

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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