MISSOULA — For those opposed to Missoula County’s school mask mandates, the best thing is to show up to school board meetings and question teachers and school board members, according to Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“I work for every single child,” said Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. “But you’re their champion – government is not it.”
About 80 people gathered at the Crosspoint Church on Monday night to hear Arntzen address their opposition to COVID masking, vaccinations, and other issues related to public schools.
The event was sponsored by the Western Montana Liberty Coalition, whose website says nothing about affiliation, members or organizers. The name suggests an affiliation with the Montana Liberty Coalition, which appeared a year ago led by Conrad Evarts, an outspoken opponent of mask mandates. The Flathead Liberty Coalition is backed by the Koch Brothers organization Americans for Prosperity. The event emcee, Amy Livesay, lives in Columbia, Missouri.
Arntzen said the organizers asked her to speak at the event, but she was there to listen.
“In my role now, I want to make sure your voice is ringing out,” Arntzen said. “Is this about the mask? Is this about a vaccine? Could be. But what’s coming down the pike after that? Parents, if you don’t stand up for your children and talk about where you want your child to be; that’s your role. And the role of government is to listen and get out of your way.”
Arntzen said she traveled to Alexandria, Virginia, last Wednesday to listen to Moms for America, who were protesting the National School Boards Association after it requested federal help on Sept. 29 to stop “threats and acts of violence” on school officials during school board meetings. Moms for America is aligned with the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The National School Boards Association has since apologized to its members, including the Montana School Boards Association, for sending the request. Arntzen said the Montana Association hadn’t been consulted about the letter, but she asked them and state school boards to stop paying dues and to call out the national organization publicly.
“Don’t lose hope in public schools. We want public conversations. We don’t need discourse,” Arntzen said. “Let’s have this dialogue with parents, school boards and teachers. It’s not duplicating. (The Montana School Boards Association) is an association, they’re a lobby group. I’m your government. I don’t believe government can fix things, but I believe that government can get out of the way.”
One mother, Melissa Sheldon, asked for Arntzen’s help, saying that her daughter wouldn’t get to go on a school trip to Hawaii in March because teachers at Big Sky High School are requiring students to be vaccinated. Arntzen said she’d take it up with the school and then, if needed, with Superintendent Rob Watson, because Montana now has a law saying people can’t be limited by vaccination status.
Several criticized Watson and the school boards, saying the board members cite statistics about COVID that aren’t real. One man said he’s never seen any facts that masks help protect children, that children don’t get the disease and he feels gaslighted.
“This is Missoula County. I have been to so many counties, and it’s the same across Montana. And why is that? Why are you not being listened to?” Arntzen said. “Do you believe they’re purporting the right thing? That’s what this is all about. How can you believe that math lesson? How can you believe that English book is the right English book? If there is doubt, we need to do better.”
To try to do better, Arntzen said her office is working on a rule to allow parents to opt out of school board policies, such as mask mandates. But it probably won’t be final until April because she’s having to work with Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Arntzen said.
“You will have the opportunity to champion your child and say, “Don’t have to wear a mask. Don’t have to have that boy in that girls’ locker room,” Arntzen said.
Arntzen told the audience they could change things more by running for a seat on the school board. They could make Montana’s public school system into “the shining star.” When she asked how many were interested, about 10 raised their hands.
At one point, Michael Gehl said he became a Missoula County Public School trustee in June because a seat came open and he was the only one to apply. He’s going to run for the seat in the spring and wants others from the audience to join him.
“This is a magical year in Missoula County Public Schools. There are six board positions open for election this year,” Gehl said. “To do that will change the matrix of this board. You can’t remove them. It’s impossible. But six positions are open this year. That’s how we’re going to beat this.”
Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades, who has filed lawsuits against the City of Missoula and Missoula school districts challenging mask mandates, also spoke at the meeting.
Missoula County Judge Jason Marks recently found Rhoades’ argument legally insufficient for an injunction against the school mask policy – a similar case failed in Gallatin County – so Rhoades said he has appealed the injunction to the Montana Supreme Court.
Rhoades said Marks didn’t address his claims that the science doesn’t support the use of masks to prevent disease, so the issue has become a political instead of legal.
“For better or worse, they didn’t take a judicial stand,” Rhoades said. “What you need to do is replace the school board, the judges – if you don’t like them, they’re elected officials – and anybody else who stands for election that won’t listen to you.
“These elections all turn on the middle third, and if you get that middle third, we can win,” Rhoades said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.