The controversy over mask wearing picked up steam in Ravalli County schools following Gov. Greg Gianforte's decision to drop the statewide mask mandate last week.
On Thursday a group of about 30 students and parents gathered in front the Corvallis High School to check their students out of school in response to the board's decision Monday to keep the mask mandate in place.
On Tuesday, the Florence-Carlton School Board voted 5-0 to drop the mask requirement starting Monday.
Thursday night, the Stevensville School Board debated the issue for three and a half hours before deciding to suspend the meeting until next week. The school's administration plans to conduct a survey of students and their parents before the next meeting on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Florence-Carlton's decision to drop the mask mandate came on the same day that Ravalli County's public health officer strongly recommended that community members continue to wear masks in setting people congregate in high density, such as schools and businesses.
Florence Board Chair Kim Bauer said she almost abstained because she understands both sides of the issue.
Bauer works in a sporting goods store in Missoula and said that every day she is the “mask police” asking each customer to put on a mask. Since her husband had a stroke in July her family also takes extra precautions.
At the Florence School Board meeting Wednesday, Bauer said community members spoke out and the board listened with open minds.
“We had directives from the governor, directives from CDC, directives from Ravalli County Public Health,” she said. “We don’t make laws. We have to deal with what information we’re given. We made a decision based on those pieces of information that at this time seem pertinent, but we can always adjust. We are aware that we might have to draw back a little bit.”
Bauer praised the current superintendent, board and staff.
“It was a very difficult decision, and I’m tired of COVID. I don’t have the right words to make everyone see both sides,” she said. “I’m trying to see both sides and make it right for both sides, but it is not going to be until this pandemic is over.”
She said she hopes people will be happy when the vaccination process is complete. She praised the amount of community, staff, parent and student participation in the meeting conducted in person, online and via email.
Bauer said one worry expressed is “mask bullying.”
“It’s a personal choice and people said if they do choose to wear a mask they don’t want to be bullied,” Bauer said. “I felt very sad for that. It’s the opposite of people in Missoula where I feel I’m bullying people when I ask them to wear a mask.”
Bauer said she felt it is unfortunate that tough decisions were not made at higher levels.
“It then leaves it up to us to make decisions and we’re not scientists and lawyers,” she said and expressed the need for more support from the Montana School Board Association.
Florence School Board Vice-Chair Matt Reeves called it, “an agonizing decision” because no matter the outcome people would be upset.
He said he based his decision on vocal community members asking to remove the mask mandate and make it a personal choice, the fewer masks he sees being worn in the community, and that the reduced numbers of new cases of COVID in Ravalli County.
“Fifth, we said we would stick with the governor's orders which removed the mask mandate. I acknowledge the suggestion that schools use masks in the briefing,” Reeves said. “As a result, my feeling was if we renege on our previous edict it could be considered a weak and ineffectual maneuver.”
He said the board would have “zero tolerance for any person who conducts or incites bullying towards another human being in our purview for wearing a mask.”
Trustee Lacy Janes agreed the decision to offer the choice of wearing masks was difficult and a change from the fall when the community asked for masks before the governor had implemented them.
“This last week we had an abundance of people, community members, parents and staff wanting a choice,” Janes said. “The fact that the governor and the Ravalli County Public Health Department has said it should be a personal choice. As a board member. I didn’t feel comfortable going against them.”
Janes said that since the board decision she has felt “hate from the community.”
“Both sides have been difficult, but we have to have faith that we’re making the right choice for the community,” Janes said. “I think there is light at the end of the tunnel and that’s what we have to understand.”
In the Ravalli County Public Health press release on Tuesday, Health officer Dr. Carol Calderwood said, “Masking is still one very important tool for us all to protect each other, decrease spread to the most vulnerable, and to keep businesses and schools open.”
“For now, I strongly recommend continued masking in settings where people congregate with higher density, such as schools and businesses,” Calderwood said. “Working together as a community, we can continue to move forward, minimizing impacts of the pandemic on health, economy, and society.”
Lower in the press release it said, “There will not be a mandate in Ravalli County. Ravalli County business and residents have the luxury of choice. However, with choice comes the responsibility and accountability we have to each other in regards to respect of individual space as well as respect to business and their preferred practices.”
Superintendent Brian Rayburn said the education community expected the governor to lift the mask mandate at end of the school year.
Rayburn said the special board meeting was essential as the last motion by the board on masking was to follow the governor’s directive. Since the board decision Tuesday he has been working with his administrative team as they expect more students to move to online education.
“Our sub-pool is growing but I am concerned,” Rayburn said. “It’s always a concern if someone goes out sick. We are doing the best that we can with the policy that is in place.”
Florence has only had 24 positive student COVID-19 cases at the school this school year. Students have quarantined and, with wearing masks, they have not had one case of community spread.
“We’ve had a pretty good year compared to other districts around the state,” Rayburn said. “With the kids, not one of the close contacts became positive that we know of. We hope that trend continues. The county provided a large supply of air filters. We bought more and are adding them to classrooms. We’re trying to make it as good as we can.”
Rayburn said Florence has great teachers and staff.
“I know this decision will be a challenge to a lot of people in the community, but we will move forward and do the best we can,” he said. “Even though it is such a dividing topic the board meeting was civil and people who gave public comment were civic and respected each other. I really appreciate it.”
In Corvallis, Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton and three of his officers were on site Thursday morning.
Holton said everyone was "super respectful. They came in, made their statement, then they left and that was the end of it."
Parent Kent Jessop said the gathering was a chance for community members to voice their dissatisfaction with the board's decision.
"I try to teach my kids that you act in confidence, not in fear," Jessop said. "If you play sports and you're afraid, you'll be hurt and you'll lose. We're teaching in our school that you have to run scared. We've allowed our children to make a stand."
"I don't want my kids wearing masks but I want to honor people who are sick and legitimate concerns," he said.
Jessop has a hearing loss from work and doesn't like masks because he can't see people's mouths moving.
He said Thursday's event was an effort to get the board to see them as people.
"It's our effort to say 'please hear us,'" Jessop said. "Rather than surveying us and saying 'we really don't care.' Most of us are frustrated. We want to be seen as people."
Jessop gave his three high school aged children the chance to check out of school. Only one decided to do so.
"I can't in good conscious demand that they do something," he said. "You can't force. My kids aren't pawns. Everyone has to do the best they can."