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Whitefish, Columbia Falls schools announce opposite mask policies

by CHRIS PETERSON & LYNNETTE HINTZE
Hungry Horse News | August 13, 2021 2:54 PM

The two biggest school districts in the North Valley will take opposite approaches to mask requirements when the school year starts in a couple weeks.

Following a contentious, four-hour meeting Thursday night, the Whitefish School Board voted to require face coverings for students, staff and visitors in kindergarten through sixth grade while indoors, and is recommending masks for students, staff and visitors in seventh through twelfth grades, Superintendent Dave Means said in an email to families and school staff on Friday.

The Columbia Falls School District, meanwhile, will make masks optional for students as the new school year begins, Superintendent Dave Wick said in a recent letter to parents.

The Columbia Falls School Board voted to make masks optional in June. Previously, they were mandatory for students and staff to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The district still will offer remote learning for students who choose not to go to school in person.

Masks also will be optional — but strongly encouraged — at Kalispell Public Schools, following a decision by that district's board earlier this week.

The Whitefish School Board will reconsider the mask guidelines when vaccines become available for children younger than 12, or by the Oct. 12 board meeting, Means said.

Whitefish schools will require masks on public transportation, such as school and activity buses, as required by federal law.

"If face coverings are optional and the number of active COVID-19 cases in Flathead County increase to the point of threatening school closures, the Board of Trustees authorizes the superintendent to implement a requirement for face coverings to be worn in identified district buildings until such time as the Board of Trustees can adopt an applicable district requirement," Means said in his email.

THE WHITEFISH School District's COVID-19 guidelines and procedures prioritize in-person learning and also have a layered approach to mitigation strategies within school buildings.

"We recognize how challenging the last 17 months have been during this global pandemic," Means said. "While opinions certainly vary on mitigation strategies, we are all ultimately after the same goal — keep our kids healthy and learning together in our schools. We will continue to strive to make decisions that are in the best interest of the health and safety of our district."

More than 40 people provided comments at the special board meeting. The trustees and school administrators also had a lengthy discussion on the pros and cons of requiring masks.

The meeting took a negative shift with several people shouting out of turn on the Zoom video chat when the board began to make their motion to require face coverings

Several trustees responded that any comments outside of the public comment period were inappropriate and not allowed. When the angry remarks continued, the district had to mute all attendees in order to vote on the motion.

Comments from Whitefish parents, guardians, teachers and medical professionals varied widely. Some insisted on a mask requirement for all students, some asked questions about how recommending masks would work, and just over half were against mask mandates saying that they deserved to make their own choice for their children.

Many commenters said wearing a mask is a personal choice and should not be forced on their children. Other people against a potential mandate stated reasons such as the mental health and energy level of their children suffered last year, almost explicitly blaming the mask for that.

On the other side, parents and medical professionals in support of requiring masks in schools for the upcoming year stated issues of safety and were concerned about children being exposed to a deadly virus. Many parents were concerned that without a mask mandate, schools might have to close due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Board Chair Katie Clarke drew from the experience of last year to come to the conclusion that requiring a mask while indoors at school was the best option for the younger kids not yet eligible to receive a vaccine.

“Actually I think when we came back to school wearing masks (last year) case rates went down,” Clarke recalled. “And I kind of think that’s because in school we were following mitigation strategies that are proven to work… Last year when they were doing all these studies, schools where mitigation strategies were in play had way lesser infection rates.”

Matt Smith, a parent in the Whitefish district, criticized the board's decision in a letter to Means and the board, writing: "It was very clear through the words of the board when they stated 63% of parents and teachers voted to have masks be optional, how the large majority of our community stands on this topic.

"You are a public school board, not a private school board and your deliberations should reflect such," Smith asserted in his letter. "We are rallying, not only to have our voices heard regarding the clear disregard for the popular opinion and over reaching mandate, but we are rallying as a community that is tired of watching the policies being pushed upon our community by like-minded individuals as yourselves."

THE COLUMBIA Falls School District is in what's known as Phase III, which makes the use of masks optional. The district will not screen students coming into schools.

"In Phase III, there are several elements that continue as precautions for the spread of disease, including extra sanitation, social distancing, frequent hand washing, and students and staff staying home when sick and symptomatic. In this phase, mask wearing is up to the individual and we will not be screening students every day at the door," Superintendent Wick said in his letter.

However, there will still be quarantine requirements for infected people who aren't vaccinated.

"We will continue, as required, with contact tracing and quarantining anyone within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more of a confirmed case," Wick said. "Students and faculty who have been vaccinated will not need to quarantine if they are exposed and asymptomatic. County health will be verifying vaccine status for those who are seeking to avoid quarantine."

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 406-758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com. Hungry Horse News editor Chris Peterson may be reached at cpeterson@hungryhorsenews.com. Whitefish Pilot reporter Whitney England contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to include information from the Whitefish School District board meeting.