Gallatin High School, Teachers, Students, File

Ashley Brumwell teaches Algebra 1 at Gallatin High School on Feb. 9.

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Beginning Tuesday, masks will be required in Bozeman School District buildings for students, staff and visitors, with the start of school less than a week away.

The school board voted 7-1 on Monday to approve the policy changes which authorize the superintendent to establish or lift the mask requirement across grade bands based on multi-week trends in COVID-19 transmission data for the elementary, middle and high schools.

If there’s a trend of grade band transmission dropping below the high threshold identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then the superintendent will have the authority to lift the mask requirement for that grade band. The superintendent will also be able to implement the mask requirement if there are “sudden and substantial increases” in COVID-19 transmission rates.

Superintendent Casey Bertram outlined a few changes to the policy after hearing trustee and public input during the Aug. 16 meeting, including flexibilities around when teachers and students would wear masks.

When teachers are working alone in a classroom, presenting while being at least 6 feet from others, during team meetings with at least 6 feet between people, or outdoors, masks will be recommended but not required.

Teachers will also have discretion to allow mask breaks when students are 6 feet apart. During lunch, masks won’t be required when eating or drinking and outside lunch periods will be encouraged.

In response to concerns from parents over policies last year, health enhancement classes will be encouraged to take place outside as often as possible, Bertram said. When inside, physical activities should be distanced and masks will be recommended but not required.

During his presentation, Bertram reiterated a call for people to get vaccinated, with 56% of Gallatin County residents fully vaccinated and only 32% of those between the ages of 12 and 17 fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 transmission has increased locally in the last three weeks, with cases 2.5 to 3 times higher than what they were in August of last year, Bertram said.

The mask policy changes are recommended as the best way to keep students in school five days a week, keep staff, students and the community safe and to ensure students have educational and social experiences, he said.

During about an hour of public discussion with at least three dozen commenters, people were again split between those who wanted a mask-optional policy and those who supported a mask requirement.

Many supporters of a mask requirement said Bertram’s policy recommendations were a good start but did not fully follow the CDC’s recommendation of a mask policy, instead tying it to trends in band transmission. They urged the board to have a universal mask requirement until children under 12 years old were eligible for a vaccine.

One parent said she wanted the board to protect her children’s health by following the CDC guidelines, saying the district’s policies were “overly complicated and do not go far enough” to protect their well-being, especially unvaccinated school children.

Many of those who opposed the mask requirement in favor of optional masks said it should be up to the parents to decide if their child wears a mask. They also said they had concerns over the mental and emotional impacts of wearing masks.

Cheryl Tusken presented a petition to the board, which she said had about 420 signatures from people asking for masks to remain optional.

Tusken, who is a parent and previously ran for school board in May, said the Montana Constitution gives parents the right to direct the education, health and well-being of their children. She said the school board didn’t have the right to trump parents and doing so would open them up to litigation.

A handful of parents said they would be pulling their children from Bozeman Public Schools if the policy went into effect while others threatened to bring a lawsuit against the district.

A few teachers also commented, saying while nobody liked wearing masks, they would do what they could to protect their students.

Jake Lile, a teacher at Bozeman High School, said while he has taught for the last 20 months, only two of them have been unmasked.

“I’d show up in a hazmat suit to teach kids because I love this job,” he said, adding it would be helpful to have some kind of “light at the end of the tunnel” conversations to help motivate students.

During board discussion, members said they had heard all the public comment and emails to the board over the last few weeks, and it was a hard decision that no one wanted to make.

All of the trustees reiterated how important it was to have students in school five days a week.

“Everyone is right on all sides of this and it just creates such a challenge to figure out what the right thing to do is and I just want to do the right thing,” said Trustee Greg Neil, adding that he kept coming back to the goal of having students in school five days a week and doing what supported that.

Trustee Lei-Anna Bertelsen said it was about public heath and the health of the whole school community.

“I want to remind all of us that what’s going to mater is how we as leaders, as adults treat this with our kids,” she said, saying it will matter how those who don’t agree with the policy talk about it with their children.

Lisa Weaver, the lone vote against the policy, said all of the board members were deeply invested in the well-being of children and applauded Bertram for finding common ground in his policy by raising the mask mandate bar to the high threshold.

“Where I come down to is I can’t in good conscious ask parents on either side of this to comply with things that are contrary to their personal convictions and their good judgment,” Weaver said.

She said the board’s commitment was to give children a great education and she didn’t see masks as an educational tool.

After a question from Weaver, Bertram said it would be possible to compare notes over the course of the school year with other school districts that have different strategies or mask policies.

On Aug. 19, Billings School District announced masks would be optional, only to reverse course two days later and mandate masks following a COVID-19 outbreak with a football team.

Belgrade and Kalispell school districts are the two AA districts in the state that have mask-optional policies.

In a subsequent 7-1 vote with Weaver opposed, the school board also approved the declaration of emergency that’s tied to the mask policy. A few members of the public also provided public comment against the declaration of emergency.

The district was 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, Bertram said.

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

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