HELENA — The Gianforte administration’s health department issued an emergency rule Tuesday saying school districts should give students and parents the opportunity to opt-out of complying with a face-mask mandate meant to protect from the spread of COVID-19.
But school and education officials said districts in Montana already are weighing the concerns of parents, students and staff who object to wearing masks, and offering them options.
“Montana students deserve to be back in their classroom in as normal and safe an environment as possible. Montana parents deserve to know their voices are heard in schools when health-related mandates for their children are being considered. They also deserve to know that schools are reviewing reliable data and scientific research about the impacts of mask mandates on students,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement.
The emergency rule says schools should give parents the ability to opt-out of health-related mandates, including wearing a mask or face covering, for reasons including: physical health; mental health; emotional health; psychosocial health; developmental needs; or religious belief, moral conviction, or other fundamental right the impairment of which could negatively impact the physical, mental, emotional, or psychosocial health of students.
Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE), said the rule does not really change what schools already are doing, regarding mask mandates.
If a staffer or student does not wish to wear a mask, school districts are weighing their concerns and giving them options, such as remote learning, she said.
“The governor would do well just to continue to support local control instead of providing disinformation, grandstanding and stirring a political pot that’s already making everyone’s lives miserable,” Curtis said.
The MFPE represents thousands of public-school teachers across the state.
Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said school boards already must consider many of the exceptions outlined in the rule, and are attempting to find the best way to keep students safe and address parental concerns about mask mandates.
After signing the emergency rule, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier said, “A number of scientific studies indicate that universal mask use among children can adversely affect their health and development, particularly among children with learning or developmental disabilities. DPHHS respects the authority of parents to make health-related decisions in the best interest of their children, including whether wearing a mask in school is appropriate. DPHHS would encourage schools to take into account all of these factors and implement any mitigation strategies in the least restrictive means as possible to maximize learning outcomes for Montana children.”
The Montana Medical Association, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Montana Association of Pediatric Psychiatrists, Montana Nurses Association, and the Montana Primary Care Association contradicted the Gianforte Administration's evaluation of the situation and say the science is there to support school masking.
"The medical and nursing community of Montana stands behind the clear research and science showing the widespread use of masks in schools can effectively reduce COVID-19 transmission as part of a layered public health approach to provide a safe learning environment for Montana’s students. Today’s emergency rule undermines an effective, proven public health measure to help keep our kids in school and our emergency rooms open.
We have strong research in support of masking. Masks protect our kids in the classroom and our communities. With cases continuing to climb, masking in schools will serve to limit the burden of serious health outcomes across our state and decrease avoidable COVID-19 disruption of school."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status due to the high level of spread of the delta variant across the country. The CDC’s reasoning is due to the congregate setting schools provide, it is easier for the virus to spread ultimately putting more homes at risk for direct exposure.
Although early into the school year, schools across Montana have already had issues related to COVID that required students to be sent home. Due to COVID exposure, some schools have already needed to implement remote learning for a large number of students.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional perspective from the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union that represents Montana school teachers and the Montana Medical Association.