HELENA — As Montana and federal leaders update their rules and guidance on mask use, school districts across the state are having to decide what to do about their own mask policies.
Helena School District leaders announced last week that they will keep their current mask rules in place through the end of the school year in June. On the other hand, East Helena School District trustees said Monday that they intend to make masks optional.
Since April, Helena Public Schools’ policy has said all students, employees and visitors have to wear masks indoors, with exceptions for eating, exercising and those with medical reasons. Masks are optional when people are outdoors.
Superintendent Tyler Ream said now is not the right time to make any changes to that policy. He said they don’t want to make a change this late in the school year, but that’s not the only reason for the decision.
“The largest gathering of unvaccinated individuals each day is in schools,” he said. “We are thinking about the rest of this year, trying to minimize changes, but also trying to make sure that our students and our employees and families remain in the safest environment possible.”
Lewis and Clark County public health leaders had a local mask mandate in place, but said earlier this month that they can no longer enforce it, after Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 257.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced people who are fully vaccinated shouldn’t have to wear masks in most situations. However, Ream noted the CDC released another statement over the weekend, saying masking is still recommended in schools.
Ream also believes allowing only vaccinated people to stop wearing masks indoors would go against House Bill 702, a recently adopted state law that prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status.
“Wearing a mask is not everybody’s favorite activity,” he said. “No matter how used someone has gotten to a mask, it’s still something that we’re not accustomed to. Yet I think our schools have done a terrific job, our students and faculty have done a terrific job this year of making this environment work and doing what they needed to do to keep the environment as safe as possible.”
Ream said the district masking policy is also the reason the Helena school board adjourned a meeting last week, after a number of people in attendance weren’t wearing masks. That meeting will reconvene on Tuesday. The mask policy is not on the agenda.
Helena trustees are expected to talk at their meeting in June about whether to keep mask rules in place for upcoming summer programs and the 2021-22 school year.
“There’s a lot of time between now and the time that school year starts, but the better that we can signal as to whether or not masks are going to be optional or required, I think families are very interested in understanding that,” Ream said.
Ream said one reason there’s still uncertainty about next school year is that it still may be months before children younger than 12 are able to get COVID vaccines.
In the East Helena School District, trustees held a special meeting Monday evening, where they voted 5-2 in favor of switching from requiring masks in the schools, to providing them but making them optional. The board will take a final vote on the change at a meeting on Wednesday.
Most members of the public testifying at Monday’s meeting supported lifting the mask requirement, saying the issue should be left up to individuals, and that students needed a return to a more normal environment.
Trustees who supported making masks optional said the state was in a much different state than when the rules were put in place, and many other businesses and organizations were loosening their mask requirements.
“People are over this thing,” said Mark Diehl. “If you’re not, you’re free to put on a mask.”
Trustee Martin Balukas opposed the change, saying the district should stick with the safety procedures that had been working, at least through the end of the school year.
“For me, 14 days isn’t going to matter,” he said.
Scott Walter, who chairs the board, voted for making masks optional. He said he had initially been concerned about the district’s liability, but that he was more comfortable after Gianforte signed a bill limiting agencies’ COVID liability.