Students and Masks

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

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The Bozeman School Board will discuss changes to its mask policy at a Monday meeting, which could see the district start the school year with a universal mask requirement if COVID-19 transmission remains high.

The proposed changes would tie a mask requirement to community and district transmission and allow the superintendent to remove or implement the requirement across grade bands, or elementary, middle and high school levels throughout the school year.

At the start of the school year, if community transmission is high according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a mask would be required for students, staff and visitors in all district buildings and indoor spaces.

The policy changes will be discussed at the Aug. 16 board meeting, which will return to a Zoom-only format after about a month and a half of in-person meetings.

A vote could happen at the Aug. 23 meeting, a week before the start of school. The board will also vote on a return to the state of emergency, which is tied to the mask requirement policy, for the district at that meeting.

The district was previously under a state of emergency from March 2020 to June 2021, when it was removed because of lower virus transmission rates in the county. It allows more flexibility in protocols for students and staff, meeting and event protocols, facility use, student attendance, and possible moves to remote or hybrid instruction.

Moving forward, the policy would authorize the superintendent to remove or implement the mask requirement across grade bands based on multi-week trends in COVID-19 transmission for elementary, middle and high school levels.

While the task force recommended a mask requirement based on substantial and high rates of transmission, the proposed policy changes state the superintendent will use the high rate of transmission when making decisions on mask requirements.

It also outlines that the superintendent will notify families, staff and students about a mask requirement by 5 p.m. the Friday for the following school week. Signs will also be posted at the schools’ entrances letting students, staff, parents and visitors know of the requirement.

Regardless of any board decision on school mask requirements, face coverings will be required for drivers and riders on district bus routes and activities per federal regulations.

The policy also says that allegations of harassment against people wearing a mask or those not wearing one for a recognized exemption would be investigated.

Students and staff refusing to wear a mask could also result in discipline.

In an August survey of over 530 employees, opinions on masks were split pretty evenly. Support for some kind of a mask requirement was just over half, with around 18% saying masks should be required for all students and staff and around 34% saying masks for students and staff should be contingent upon thresholds in school, grade band or community transmission.

About 45% of people said masks should be optional for all students and staff.

The recommended policy changes come as districts across the state are deciding how they’ll start the school year off. This week, Belgrade School Board approved a school plan that included a mask optional policy for students and staff while the Missoula School Board voted for a universal masking policy.

At the university level, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado recommended indoor use of masks for unvaccinated and vaccinated people on Aug. 3, but stopped short of requiring them.

Bozeman’s task force originally met in early July, and at the July 12 school board meeting provided recommendations that mask use should be optional for students and employees at the start of the school year.

A little over two weeks after the task force met, the CDC released updated mask guidance for K-12 schools on July 27, reversing course and advising masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff.

“CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” the guidelines stated.

At the time of the task force’s original recommendations, cases in Gallatin County were relatively low, with 12 active cases and two hospitalizations on July 2. In the weeks since, infections and hospitalizations have continued to rise.

Cases and hospitalizations were continuing to rise in the county throughout late July and into August. As of Aug. 12, there were 178 active COVID-19 cases.

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

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