GREAT FALLS — The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) on Tuesday issued an emergency rule to, in the words of Governor Greg Gianforte, "promote the role of parents as the ultimate decision makers on matters pertaining to the health of their children, including on the issue of wearing masks in schools."
The emergency rule reads, in part:
In order to provide for the health, well-being, rights, and educational needs of students, schools and school districts should consider, and be able to demonstrate consideration of, parental concerns when adopting a mask mandate, and should provide students and/or their parents or guardians, on their behalf, with the ability to opt-out of health-related mandates, to include wearing a mask or face covering, for reasons including:
(a) physical health;
(b) mental health;
(c) emotional health;
(d) psychosocial health;
(e) developmental needs; or
(f) religious belief, moral conviction, or other fundamental right the impairment of which could negatively impact the physical, mental, emotional, or psychosocial health of students.
Great Falls Public Schools said in a news release that district officials have reviewed the emergency rule and provided the following response:
Great Falls Public Schools has reviewed the emergency rule issued by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, and 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. The District will continue to enforce its face covering guidelines to ensure the safety and welfare of all students and staff.
The School District has received hours of public comment from parents and others in the community on this issue, demonstrating its clear desire to listen and take the wishes of parents into account. The School District has been working with parents seeking options to the mask requirements in Elementary Schools. Parents seeking accommodations may contact their school Principal.
In addition, if a student has a medical reason for being unable to comply with the face covering guidelines, the District stands ready to have the conversation about what accommodations it can reasonably provide. Parents should work directly with their Building Principal or Administrator to determine the appropriate steps for requesting a medical exemption. A reminder that appropriate documentation from a medical provider will be needed.
GFPS implemented a color-coded system to start the new academic year. For the week of August 30, 2021, GFPS is operating under the yellow phase, which means that masks are required in grades PK-6, and strongly encouraged in grades 7-12. Visit the GFPS website for updates.
Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services director Adam Meier said, “A number of scientific studies indicate that universal mask use among children can adversely affect their health and development, particularly among children with learning or developmental disabilities. DPHHS respects the authority of parents to make health-related decisions in the best interest of their children, including whether wearing a mask in school is appropriate. DPHHS would encourage 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.”
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Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE), said the rule does not really change what schools already are doing, regarding mask mandates. The MFPE represents thousands of public-school teachers across the state. If a staff member or student does not wish to wear a mask, school districts are weighing their concerns and giving them options, such as remote learning, she said. “The governor would do well just to continue to support local control instead of providing disinformation, grandstanding and stirring a political pot that’s already making everyone’s lives miserable,” Curtis said.
Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said school boards already must consider many of the exceptions outlined in the rule, and are attempting to find the best way to keep students safe and address parental concerns about mask mandates.
The Montana Medical Association, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Montana Association of Pediatric Psychiatrists, Montana Nurses Association, and the Montana Primary Care Association contradicted the Gianforte administration's evaluation of the situation and say the science is there to support school masking:
"The medical and nursing community of Montana stands behind the clear research and science showing the widespread use of masks in schools can effectively reduce COVID-19 transmission as part of a layered public health approach to provide a safe learning environment for Montana’s students. Today’s emergency rule undermines an effective, proven public health measure to help keep our kids in school and our emergency rooms open.
We have strong research in support of masking. Masks protect our kids in the classroom and our communities. With cases continuing to climb, masking in schools will serve to limit the burden of serious health outcomes across our state and decrease avoidable COVID-19 disruption of school."
The federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) currently recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status due to the high level of spread of the delta variant across the country. The CDC’s reasoning is due to the congregate setting schools provide, it is easier for the virus to spread ultimately putting more homes at risk for direct exposure.
Although early into the school year, schools across Montana have already had issues related to COVID that required students to be sent home. Due to COVID exposure, some schools have already needed to implement remote learning for a large number of students.
The emergency rule is in effect for 120 days, unless it is extended beyond that time. Click here to read the full text of the DPHHS document (PDF).