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Bigfork School Board extends mask mandate until April 9

by MACKENZIE REISS
Daily Inter Lake | March 11, 2021 3:05 PM

The Bigfork School Board on Wednesday voted to extend the campus-wide mask mandate until Friday, April 9, to give teachers and staff an opportunity to get vaccinated.

The move came on the heels of Monday evening’s special meeting, where board members met with the Bigfork Area Education Association. Board Chair Paul Sandry said the teacher’s union wanted the mask mandate to extend through the end of the school year, just a few months away. However, board members came to what they considered a compromise by agreeing on an April 9 end date for the mandate. The board previously voted in a 4-3 split against extending the school mask requirement beyond Friday, March 12.

Dozens were in attendance at Wednesday evening’s meeting and parents, staff and one student addressed the board with their thoughts on the issue.

Teacher Patrick Johnstonsaid he was grateful for the extension, which he said would give teachers “a chance” to get the coronavirus vaccine. However, the time-frame is slightly shy of the requirement for full immunity to develop, which is two weeks after the second dose is given. Those who receive the vaccine developed by Moderna have to wait 28 days between doses, while those receiving Pfizer-BionNTech’s version must wait 21 days. So if a teacher got their vaccine tomorrow, they wouldn’t be considered fully protected until April 16 at the earliest.

“I would still love to have masks until the end of the year,” Johnston said. “If you come into any of the classrooms ... it’s like any other normal school day. Masks are a very minimal part.”

Parent Suzanne Childers also spoke in favor of continued masking on campus, noting that if other state employees with public facing roles are required to mask up, school staff members should, too.

She was also in favor of extending the mandate through the end of the school year.

“A year ago Bigfork was looked at as being a leader [in remote learning] … in a couple of instances we even had a couple of countries reaching out to us to see what we were doing so effectively,” Childers said. “While we led a year ago, we’re losing that race now.”

BIGFORK SENIOR Archie Brevik saw the issue differently. He said he has been learning remotely since he is unable to wear a mask.

“It's not that I don't care about the health and safety of others, I do, I can’t wear a mask or face shield without being distracted. I feel like I can't breathe or focus. Masks keep me from learning and performing to the best of my ability in school,” Brevik explained. He also made strong allegations that he had been “bullied” by staff over his refusal to wear a mask, even though he has an exemption from his doctor.

His mother, Christina Brevik, echoed her son’s sentiments, explaining that she felt the community was at a point where it was time to return to normal.

“It’s time now for us to get back to living again,” Christina Brevik said. “If we have students whose mental health is being affected … Archie cannot possibly be the only kid in the school who feels this way. As a school, this should be your focus. These are your kids.”

One paraprofessional also addressed the board, characterizing her job as “mask police” rather than a position that focused on the needs of students. Another paraprofessional said she thought that people should be given a right to choose whether or not to wear a mask, especially since the statewide mask mandate had expired, and noted that not all staff and teachers were on board with the extension.

TRUSTEE ZACK Anderson brought the focus of the meeting back to reaching a compromise. Despite the fact that he didn’t agree with the mask requirement himself, he felt that the early April extension was fair to both sides.

“I don't want to be wearing this mask right now, but April 9 is a fair compromise to some people that I really have a lot of respect for in these buildings,”Anderson said, referring to the teachers. “It’s a difficult place to be on a split board up here. It's just difficult in times like this. … Everybody is just doing their level best, myself included. I offer up my sincere hope that all of us can see this through and after the ninth, I hope we can get back to normal — and I think we’re going to do so.”

Trustee Dan Elwell abstained from the vote, while all other trustees present voted in favor of the mask requirement extension. Students, visitors and staff will be required to wear a mask while on campus through April 9. On Monday, April 12, they will have the option to choose whether or not to wear a mask.

The issue of masks on campus has been a divisive one across Flathead County. Earlier this week a small group of Glacier High Students staged a walkout against masks and more than 100 community members recently attended a public meeting at Kalispell Schools during which the district unanimously voted to uphold their mask mandate. But not every school has kept masks on campus. Earlier this week, Swan River School voted to let teachers determine mask requirements in their classrooms until April 5 when students and staff will be able to choose.

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.