HELENA — On Friday, two groups of parents gathered at the Capitol in Helena, taking part in a pair of events on opposite sides of the debate over school mask requirements.
More than 100 people from around the state participated in a “Parental Rights Rally” on the Capitol steps, criticizing school boards that they say have implemented mask mandates and other COVID protocols without taking parents’ concerns into consideration.
“I would love to see our school district actually demonstrate that they’re listening to the parents in these conversations at their school boards, and to follow their own recommendations, but ultimately, give parents the choice,” said Brian Cayko, of Great Falls.
Many of those participating held signs criticizing mask rules. Speakers at the event said mandates were an overreach, and that masks were having negative effects on kids’ education and mental health.
“With a mask in the schools, our kids do not get to see what our teachers are showing back to them,” said Scott Jablonski, a parent from Great Falls. “This is wrong in every sense of what has gone on.”
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and state Sen. Theresa Manzella, a Republican from Hamilton, also spoke at the event. Manzella pointed to Senate Bill 400, a new state law she sponsored during the session. It states that “a governmental entity may not interfere with the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of their children,” unless they show their action furthers a “compelling governmental interest” and is the least restrictive means possible to do so. SB 400 also sets up a process for parents to challenge in court if they believe their rights have been infringed.
Arntzen said parents, school boards and students all need to be respected, and she said her office is working on a process to ensure accommodations and “educational equality” for all students.
On the south side of the Capitol, several dozen people participated in a demonstration of their own. They lined Montana Avenue and held up signs supporting districts that have implemented masking and other COVID safety measures.
Katie Loveland, a parent from Helena, said she organized the event as a counter to the other rally, and that she was disappointed in the criticism that’s been directed at school and public health leaders.
“I really believe there’s another side; there’s kind of a quiet majority of people who support public health measures, who really want kids to be safe,” she said. “None of us love having to do these measures, but we believe in science-based decision making.”
Loveland said, since Montana is still experiencing some of the highest rates of COVID transmission in the U.S., now isn’t the right time to move away from masking and other protective steps.
“We want to protect our health first,” she said. “You know, you can’t worry about your mental health if you’re sick and if you’ve lost your life.”