Bozeman High File

Two students leave Bozeman High School for lunch on March 30.

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Bozeman School District’s mask requirement will remain in place after officials said its policy is in accordance with an emergency rule from the Department of Public Health and Human Services urging districts to prioritize parents’ decisions in regards to masking.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a press release announcing the rule on Tuesday that parents should make the final decision for their children wearing masks. It does not make mask mandates illegal.

The emergency ruling said school districts “should consider, and be able to demonstrate consideration of, parental concerns when adopting a mask mandate.”

Bozeman School District’s mask policy is in full compliance with the emergency rule and the requirement remains in place in all buildings for all students, staff and visitors while indoors, interim Superintendent Casey Bertram said in a release a few hours after the announcement from DPHHS.

“The district reads the rule as permissive as it specifically provides that school districts ‘should consider’ parental concerns and ‘should provide’ an opt-out system for certain reasons. The district has done both,” Bertram said.

The district’s policy authorizes the superintendent to establish or lift the mask requirement across grade bands based on trends in COVID-19 transmission data from the elementary, middle and high schools.

The district passed its mask policy on Aug. 23 after two board meetings that consisted of hours of public comment and a multitude of emailed comments on the policy.

Those hours of public comment demonstrate the district’s “clear desire to take the wishes of parents into account,” Bertram said.

The emergency rule also states schools should provide parents with the ability to opt-out of mandates for reasons including physical, mental, emotional and psychosocial health, developmental needs, religious belief, moral conviction or other fundamental rights.

Per the school district’s policy, parents who don’t want their child to wear a mask have the option to enroll in the Bozeman Online Charter School for K-8 or the Bozeman Online High School.

Parents looking to enroll in the online option should consult their school principal, Bertram said.

The district’s policy also outlined how parents could ask for a medical or religious exception. Individuals wanting to discuss a medical exception or religious exception should reach out to their child’s school principals to discuss factors and a plan of reasonable accommodation, according to the policy.

“The school district is prepared to consider the factors identified in the rule and accommodate request for a medical/disability or religious exception request,” Bertram said.

DPHHS respects the authority of parents to make health-related decisions for their children and encouraged “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,” department Director Adam Meier said in a statement.

In his press release, Gianforte questioned the science on masking, saying mandating masks was “based on inconclusive research.” He said masking for children could negatively impact their health, development and well-being.

“This emergency rule ultimately directs schools to recognize the fundamental rights of parents, and because each child is unique and may face unique challenges, this rule urges schools to empower parents to do what’s best for their children,” Gianforte said.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, including the Montana chapter, have recommended universal masking for students and staff in schools.

Debra Silk, associate executive director with the Montana School Boards Association, said in an emailed response that the DPHHS emergency rule recognizes the authority of local boards of trustees to adopt public health protocols in accordance with the Montana Constitution.

It is written in a way that says schools should consider a list of factors when implementing a face covering rule, she wrote.

“The rule is also consistent with the model policies MTSBA has developed regarding accommodating individuals with medical or developmental conditions, as well as the consideration of religious accommodations as those issues relate to face coverings in schools,” Silk wrote in an emailed response to the Chronicle.

Bertram said in a press release that the district will continue, “to enforce its face covering guidelines to ensure the safety and welfare of all students and staff.”

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

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