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Kalispell schools to keep mask mandate

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | February 25, 2021 8:52 AM

The Kalispell Public Schools Board of Trustees on Wednesday unanimously approved the district’s recommendation to continue requiring masks be worn in schools.

According to the revised policy, all students, staff, volunteers and visitors are required to wear a “face covering, mask or face shield,” in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The vote followed more than two hours of emotional testimony from the sizable audience in attendance, in addition to an hour-long recess during which trustees reviewed hundreds of written comments.

The move comes after Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted a statewide mask mandate, leaving the decision up to local jurisdictions but encouraging Montanans to wear masks in his Feb. 12 directive.

Trustees heard from parents, students, educators and doctors, who provided a seemingly even mix of support and opposition to continuing the mask mandate.

However, the majority of written comments were supportive of continuing to require masks, according to Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Michah Hill. Of the 637 written comments collected through Tuesday, he reported that 526 were in support of the district's recommendation, while 111 were against it.

Before opening up the floor to public comment, Hill addressed the audience.

“No matter who you are or what your beliefs are on these issues, what we’re all going through right now is incredibly hard,” Hill said.

“We all care deeply about our kids. Understandably that deep care and conviction creates strong feelings and opinions when it comes to our children. I think we can also agree having our kids in school is a priority.”

Schools have remained open for in-person instruction since the start of the school year and offer a remote learning option for students.

HILL GAVE a brief presentation to provide background on how the district arrived at the recommendation and showed that at the peak of COVID-19 cases in the school district — 33 last November — it remained well below Flathead County’s 1,053 cases.

“We’re making every possible effort to make the best decision we can with the information that we have. We are not medical professionals or epidemiologists. We are educational professionals caught in the crossfire of a very difficult issue. Therefore we have relied heavily on the input and recommendations from respected health officials and resources,” Hill said.

This has included communicating often with the Flathead City-County Health Department. Hill invited Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell to also speak at the meeting.

“Really, social distancing is the best thing that you can do,” Russell told the board and audience. “Six feet apart. Limited contact. We can’t do that in schools. It’s impossible in schools.

“The next best alternative is masks. Masks work,” Russell said, attributing fewer cases to wearing masks, to which someone in the audience yelled an expletive.

“Let’s get through the school year. Let’s get our adults in our school systems vaccinated,” Russell continued.

Russell said teachers should have access to vaccines before the start of the 2021-22 school year. One of the key reasons the majority of school districts throughout the valley are continuing to require masks is because teachers’ access to vaccinations has been delayed. Teachers were moved from Phase 1B to 1C. Currently, the state is in Phase 1B.

One woman in the audience who works in the medical profession questioned what data the district had to address the efficacy of masks.

“The reason why there’s no peer-reviewed studies is because it’s actually unethical to conduct a double-blind study on the efficacy of wearing masks in the prevention of infection disease during a pandemic,” she said. “So nobody has these numbers. It’s all speculation and theory at best.”

TWO HIGH school students spoke against the mask mandate. Viktor Shokur, a Glacier High School senior, said he had been escorted off school grounds because he wasn’t wearing a mask over his nose.

“I will not bow down," Shokur said. "Certain teachers even have teamed up on me and watch me as I go down the hallway, OK. They want me out of their school. Well, I’m here for my education that I deserve, OK, and I’m here to stay. What I do I feel is adequate and I feel it should be about personal choice. Those who choose to wear it can continue to do so."

Several students voiced their support of the mask requirement.

“This is a reality that I, my peers, and the teachers in this room have to deal with. The fact that we are living in the midst of a global pandemic that — yes — is still happening,” Flathead High School junior Scout McMahon said.

“We are still coming to school and risking our lives every single day,” she said as her statement was met with laughter from the audience. “Excuse me, if you feel the need to laugh at a high school girl advocating for” a safe school environment.

Board Chairman Lance Isaak again reminded the audience to be respectful.

Flathead High School junior class president Emily Hove echoed a similar sentiment.

“I, and much of the junior class, find it deeply concerning that the mask policy may be dropped,” Hove said, asking people to think about students with family members who are among vulnerable populations.

“The responsibility of our old, our sick, our young and our needy falls upon the school district, the school board and the students alike,” Hove said. “To ask us to come to school without the mask mandate is to ask us to risk our very lives, and to have to make a choice between our education or our safety.”

Hedges Elementary fifth-grader Tesla Cohen voiced support for wearing masks and shared her personal experience being in quarantine.

“I was in quarantine and I know what it feels like. It was terrible. I couldn’t go to school, or play sports or socialize with friends. It was lonely and isolating. I just spent all day looking at a computer screen, and frankly, I felt like a zombie. Another reason we should keep wearing masks is that we’re not out of this yet,” Cohen said, also noting a concern that teachers haven’t been vaccinated.

A LARGE number of parents in attendance spoke in opposition of the mask mandate and said it should be optional, speaking on behalf of their children, relaying instances of breathing issues, skin reactions and mouth infections. One parent described the mask mandate as child abuse.

Parent Amber Reiner commented, "we're damaging an entire generation," both physically and mentally.

From an educator perspective, a local substitute teacher and a kindergarten teacher spoke to the hygiene of masks. The substitute said she felt the masks children were akin to “wearing petri dishes of bacteria around their faces,” saying parents weren’t cleaning them on a daily basis.

The kindergarten teacher advocated for diligent hand washing versus masks.

Otherwise, educators were in consensus of continuing the mask mandate. Kalispell Education Association President Lynne Rider presented a snapshot of results from a survey that had yet to be completed. Rider said of 281 teachers who responded by 4 p.m., 92% were supportive of the recommendation and 7.5% opposed.

Glacier High School English teacher Rachel Viano expressed her gratitude the district has remained open for in-person instruction.

“I’m so grateful that we have been able to stay open up to this point, but it is because of the mask wearing that we can do that. I want to stay in my classroom. I want to still see my kids,” Viano said, later adding, “also, there are a lot of staff members, students, and family members of students who maybe aren’t as vocal right now, but who have underlying health conditions. I am six months pregnant. I am one of those people.”

District Special Education Director Sara Cole said the district serves 700 students with disabilities who are “some of the most vulnerable and medically fragile kids.”

EDGERTON ELEMENTARY Principal Jen Stein said she was not going to try convincing people whether masks “work or don’t work.” Instead, she said her job was to have students and staff in school and to protect them.

“So I’m here to say that while some people may feel safe and some people don’t. Until they have the opportunity — if they wish to take the vaccine — they should not have to be in this situation,” Stein said. “They work hard and if you have not been in a classroom you have not seen how hard it is for staff and students. It has not been fun, but getting through these hard times is worth it because I get to be with people I love who are happy and are learning.”

In addition to masks, mitigation measures include frequent hand washing or sanitizing, physical distancing when possible and regularly disinfecting buildings.

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

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. to include more public comments.