Students and Masks

Masked Bozeman High students walk home after school on May 18.

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Bozeman School Board members this week discussed a possible mask policy that would be tied to community and district transmission, with many members seeming to support a policy that would likely see the school year start with a universal mask requirement if COVID-19 transmission remains high.

While no vote was scheduled, almost 400 people tuned in to the virtual meeting on Monday, which saw two-and-a-half hours of public comment on the proposed mask policy from about 60 people.

The policy recommendation would allow the superintendent to remove or implement a mask requirement across grade bands, or elementary, middle and high school levels.

At the start of the school year, a mask would be required if community transmission was high according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Throughout the school year, the policy would be based on trends in grade band data tracked by the school district.

The mask policy would be tied to a state of emergency declaration, which is expected to come before the board for a vote at its next meeting on Aug. 23, a week before school is scheduled to start.

Interim Superintendent Casey Bertram presented his recommendations to the school board, which were based on last week’s meeting of the district’s COVID-19 advisory task force with a few differences.

While the task force recommended the substantial community transmission rate as the threshold for starting the year with masks, Bertram recommended to the board that the district use the high community transmission threshold.

Bertram also outlined recommendations from the CDC, American Academy of Pediatricians and local health officials.

Gallatin City-County Health Officer Lori Christensen in a letter to all districts and superintendents in Gallatin County on Monday encouraged district’s to follow the CDC’s recommendation of universal masking in schools.

She also outlined how the health department would not be able to enforce quarantines due to House Bill 702, which prohibits anyone from treating someone differently based on vaccination status. The health department can no longer enforce quarantines for a close contact of a COVID-19 positive case and can only recommend it.

Throughout the board discussion, trustees emphasized how important it is to have students in school five days a week and to take the steps that would make that possible.

Trustee Greg Neil said he regretted all the things that had been taken away from students last year due to the pandemic and if he was making decisions for his four children, he was mask optional.

“But this is bigger than my family. This is our community and this is making decisions to educate kids in buildings and put in protocol to meet that goal,” Neil said. “… I don’t think I’m smarter than a huge national group of pediatricians. As much as I despise masks, I’m going to listen to them.”

Trustee Douglas Fischer raised concerns about the policy possibly being more reactive instead of proactive and “looking backwards rather than forwards.”

Trustee Lisa Weaver asked if it would be possible to reconsider the thresholds since a small number of cases would tip a grade band into the high transmission category. For example, three positive cases over seven days at the high school level would tip the grade band into the high CDC threshold.

During public comment, there was a split between those who supported the policy recommendation and those who were opposed to a mask requirement.

Supporters of the policy said they felt safer sending their children to schools with a mask requirement. Many of them said a mask requirement would help protect students with compromised immune systems or families who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

A few of the supporters said their children had learned remotely last year but were looking forward to returning to the district with a mask policy in place.

A handful of people wanted to see a universal mask requirement as recommended by the CDC instead of a policy that was tied to district trends in transmission rates.

People opposed to the mask policy or any kind of mask requirement questioned the effectiveness of wearing masks and the authority of organizations like the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, saying they thought the groups were too political.

The CDC has found masks can block upwards of 80% of all respiratory droplets.

Many of the people opposed said it should be up to parents to determine whether their children wear masks and asked the district to look into the mental and emotional impacts of wearing masks.

A handful of people said if masks were required, they would pull their children from the Bozeman School District.

Toward the end of the meeting, Weaver said it was important to honor all voices and experiences heard during public comment. She asked if it would be possible to have designated mask-required and mask-optional schools and give parents the ability to pick.

Faced with two weeks before school starts, Bertram said, the logistics of matching teachers and students to schools and having all the numbers line up would “be a large lift and probably out of the realm of possibility.”

Following public comment, Fischer said the board had a referendum on its approach to COVID-19 with the May election and the community overwhelming supported three candidates that favored a science-based approach.

A few of the trustees expressed concern over how the board and district can help bridge the divide in the community over mask policies.

“What I heard today was ‘how are we going to heal this divide,’” Fischer said. “… If we go forward with this mask mandate, how do we depoliticize it?”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.