MONFORTON SCHOOL COVID

Monforton Middle School is photographed on Sept. 2.

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A majority of families complied with Monforton School District’s new mask requirement on Wednesday, with about half a dozen or so seeking information on the district’s online learning option, according to its superintendent.

The board on Tuesday voted in favor of Superintendent Darren Strauch’s recommendation to implement a mandatory mask policy for the K-8 school district west of Bozeman. The vote followed multiple motions and hours of public comment during the emergency meeting.

The vote came a week after a COVID-19 outbreak forced two grade levels and a handful of classes to quarantine in early September.

“Any time there’s a divisive issue like this and strong feelings on either side, there will be people upset with the district regardless,” Strauch said in an interview Wednesday.

Most of the families have chosen to honor the policy, Strauch said.

“When there’s a divide in the community, it certainly makes it more difficult to focus on what we’re here for, which is educating students,” he said.

During the meeting, Strauch said there had been more than 20 cases of COVID-19 in the school since its Aug. 26 start.

Requiring masks in the school district could reduce possible transmission within the school and the number of quarantines, Strauch said. If the goal was to maintain five days of in-person learning for students, the district could not continue without additional strategies to combat COVID-19, he said.

According to advice from the Gallatin City-County Health Department, when students are wearing masks the distance that defines a close contact goes from 6 feet to 3 feet, potentially limiting the number of students who would need to quarantine if someone tests positive.

Strauch said with students wearing masks, a case could require a pod of students in a class to quarantine but wouldn’t see a full class and teacher quarantined.

“There would still be quarantining potentially, but on a lesser scale,” he said.

During the board discussion, a few of the trustees said they were divided on what the right course of action was and, no matter what decision they made, people would be unhappy with it.

During public comment, many of the people in favor of a mask requirement pointed to the success the district saw last year with a mask policy in limiting exposure within the schools and limiting the number of quarantines. A few said if nothing changes then the district is basically saying the number and quarantines last week was acceptable.

Monforton was one of the few school districts that started last year with five days of in-person learning.

Those who spoke against the mask requirement said it should be a decision made by each student’s family and questioned the effectiveness of masks. Many of the parents spoke about the struggles their students have faced to connect and learn while wearing a mask.

One parent of a third grader said when her son heard there might be a mask requirement, he asked to find a different school where he wouldn’t have to wear one.

“I understand learning remotely is not ideal, but in my son’s words, he said he would rather be quarantined for a week than wear a mask,” she said.

A handful of students also spoke saying they would prefer masks remain optional.

Some parents frustrated with a mask requirement questioned how long a mask requirement would last and were concerned that there didn’t seem to be an end goal in sight. Parents who supported a requirement said the policy should stay in place at least until children younger than 12 are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Parents of students who had recently tested positive largely spoke in favor of a mask requirement.

“I’m sitting here after all these hours with a (COVID-19) positive child and listening to the board members still talking about optional masking and I am furious, furious that that is where it’s going,” said one parent.

The initial motion made by trustee John-Henry Anderson to implement a mandatory mask requirement failed. After that, a motion to maintain the voluntary masking moved forward and seemed on the verge of passing. During public comment on that motion, many teachers and parents urged the board members to listen to the recommendation from the superintendent and voiced support for a mandatory mask policy.

“I really want to be able to keep teaching these kids. This is my life’s work and I see the joy the kids experience when they come into my classroom, and I do think it would help to wear masks for me and my community,” said a Monforton art teacher, who sees about 400 students a week.

When it appeared the motion to maintain the voluntary masking policy could pass, Monforton Middle School Principal Phil Weiss asked trustees if masks were to be optional, would they want the middle school to move forward with establishing cohorts, a process that would entail rescheduling for the whole school and limit classes like band and choir.

“Having mask optional and not cohorting did not work out so well,” he said, referring to the quarantines of multiple grades last week. “We’re a couple days away from having a full school again. I don’t know what is covering us from the exact scenario happening again.”

The motion to maintain the voluntary masking policy ultimately failed 2-3.

After that, the board voted 4-1 in favor of the mandatory masking policy.

Throughout the meeting, trustees raised the possibility of sending a survey to teachers and parents for additional input.

Strauch said the district would send a survey to families and one to teachers and employees as another forum for people to express their views. He said any available results would likely be discussed at the board’s next regular meeting.

“I think the conversation on masking and protocols will be a common discussion for all school boards,” he said. “… It’ll likely be on every one of our agendas for the foreseeable future.”

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

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