After five hours of debate and three tie votes, the Stevensville School District will keep its requirement for masks in place for the time being.
Superintendent Bob Moore made the decision Tuesday after the board deadlocked for the third time.
The board met two nights to hear public comment and discuss the issue that came to the forefront following Gov. Greg Gianforte's decision to lift the state's mask mandate.
Trustee votes to keep the mask directive were Michele Fauth, Cathi Cook, Kris McKoy and Ben Meyer. Trustee votes to eliminate masks were Sean Lenahan, Billy Donaldson, Sarah Armijo and Nick Gerard.
After it became apparent the board would not be able to decide the issue, it resorted to a policy passed in November that gave the superintendent authority to decide measures "to adopt reasonable safety measures to protect the safety of District personnel, students, and visitors on District premises and during school-related activities.”
Moore recommended continuation of the mask directive.
“My intent is to keep the doors open for onsite instruction for our students,” Moore said. “At this time, based on the information that I have, that the best way is to keep adults, teaching staff, onsite and healthy is to continue the mask directive.”
Moore said that he will continually evaluate the situation.
Stevensville School Board Chair Cathi Cook said there were three tied votes.
“We had two votes last week,” she said. “One was for the continuing of the masks and that was a 4:4 tie and the second motion to go the [mask] optional route which was also a tie.”
Cook said the board ran a survey between the meetings “to see what students, staff and parents were thinking.”
The Feb. 23 meeting had extensive public comment, two rounds of board comment and different suggestions on employing other ways to mitigate COVID-19.
“Then we did have a vote to require masks until vaccinations were available and completed for staff or at the end of the school year,” Cook said.
That motion was also a 4:4 tie, with the board members voting the same way they did the previous week.
“After the 4:4 tie we had more discussion to figure out how to mitigate this decision,” Cook said. “A motion was made to do different options like investing in more masks, Plexiglas and things like that."
At that time Cook said she realized that no one was going to change their minds and called for further business on the agenda.
“When there was none, I stated that the board would revert to Policy 8301 approved in November of 2020,” Cook said. “Dr. Moore’s recommendation to the board during both meetings was to continue with the mask directive."
Cook said the school board would continue to monitor the situation.
“We have 59 days left of school and will get out May 21 due to our construction schedule,” Cook said. “We will continue to monitor the situation, but we’ve been doing this for six months. We have less than 60 days left. We know they don’t like the routine of wearing masks it is their routine and it is a K-12 directive.”
Cook said that with the vaccine shortage, teachers in the 1C category and the time needed for the vaccinations to get to full-strength that timeline is pushed further away.
“We just want to be able to get through these last months and keep our kids in the school and able to do their activities without disruption that might be caused by not wearing masks,” she said. “Other schools statewide are making a variety of decisions but we have to be specific to what our district needs. In the Bitterroot Valley, five out of six districts are continuing with their masks.”
The Florence-Carlton School Board voted to rescind the mask directive last week.