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Bigfork Schools votes against on-campus mask requirement

by MACKENZIE REISS
Bigfork Eagle | February 18, 2021 2:15 AM

Students and staff will no longer be required to mask up on campus at Bigfork Schools starting March 15.

The Bigfork School Board on Wednesday voted 4-3 against instituting an on-campus mask requirement. The move puts Bigfork at odds with the majority of Flathead Valley schools, which have opted to continue requiring masks, even though Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the statewide mask mandate Feb. 12. The four other districts based their decision on recommendations from the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bigfork trustee Dan Elwell said he voted in favor of discontinuing masks after consulting with his constituents and considering the risk of transmission on campus.

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Students pose for a photo inside the Bigfork High School Library. Courtesy of Bigfork High School Yearbook Staff

“In looking at the data, looking at the contact tracing results and looking at the risk of students transmitting it to each other and to staff, it didn’t seem like it was that high,” Elwell said. “At some point in time we’ve gotta get back to normal. And if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first one to say let's go back to masks.”

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Bigfork students hang out on campus while wearing masks. Courtesy of Bigfork High School Yearbook Staff

Elwell was in favor of making special accommodations for staff members who had underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of developing serious complications from the virus.

“If they have an underlying health condition, we definitely need to accommodate them,” he said.

Elwell also contacted multiple constituents on both sides of the issues before Wednesday’s vote.

“It was a very tough decision,” Elwell said.

Trustee Zack Anderson said once the statewide mandate was dropped by the governor it was up to individual school districts to decide whether or not to enforce their own requirements — a policy which he also voted against.

“It’s time for our district to begin leading ourselves out of this pandemic and this is the beginning of it,” he said.

As of Feb. 17, 60 of the school’s 896 students and 28 staff members have tested positive for the virus over the course of the pandemic. A total of 57% of the student body have been quarantined once, while 16% reported more than one quarantine period and 24% of staff members have tested positive for the virus. Currently, 14 individuals are quarantined and two COVID-19 cases are designated as active, according to data published on Bigfork Schools’ website.

Case numbers throughout the county have been on an encouraging downward trend, down from a peak of approximately 1,474 statewide cases per day in November 2020 to 236 on Thursday, Feb 18. However, Montana isn’t out of the woods just yet. Only an estimated 47,000 of the state’s 1.09 million residents have received both doses of the coronavirus vaccine while another 167,000 have received their first dose.

Bigfork Schools surveyed parents about masking in schools and found that 60% of the 328 surveyed were opposed to keeping a mask requirement through the end of the school year, however 75% also indicated that they would prefer on-site learning with a mask requirement over a hybrid model.

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Students play a board game at Bigfork Schools. Courtesy of Bigfork High School Yearbook Staff

Most parents would continue to send their children to school without a mask mandate —- just 5% said they would not and another 14% indicated they would request a virtual option.

Survey results also showed that more staff members than parents were in favor of keeping the mask requirement. Seventy-four percent of the 96 staff members surveyed said the mask requirement was effective in limiting the spread of the virus.

However, the vast majority — some 88% — also indicated that they would continue working on campus with or without a mask requirement.

But not every employee was comfortable with the removal of masks. Twenty-two percent of respondents indicated they were in a high-risk category for COVID-19 complications and 18% said they would request accommodations to work from home if the mandate were lifted. Staff members were also asked to assess their level of comfort with returning to work without masks on campus and 48% rated their comfort level between 1 and 5 while 58% rated their level between 6 and 10.

Trustee Julie Kreiman hoped the board would continue enforcing a mask requirement on campus through the end of the school year due to the number of staffers with underlying health conditions, which could mean more changes in the way education is delivered.

“Having 20% of our staff go to remote will possibly lead to having to adjust how we’re doing school right now — going to possibly a hybrid model or doing something different than what we’ve been doing all year, which has been working and keeping our kids in school,” Kreiman said. “The results from the staff survey are that one staff member has received one shot, so that is how little staff is vaccinated at this time.”

She also expressed concerns over potential liabilities the district could face, should a staff member become severely ill and decide to sue the school. Kreiman was also disappointed with results from a survey sent out to parents that indicated 49% were unwilling to wait until at-risk staff members had been vaccinated before lifting the school mask requirement.

“I understand that people have strong opinions on masking and their effectiveness …. But to not respect and show that support for our teachers and our school staff, who have been amazing through the pandemic just breaks me a little bit,” Kreiman said. “Some decisions were made based on strong opinions regarding masks without thinking about what some of the potential fallout is going to be.”

Trustees who were in favor of ending the school mask requirement were Zack Anderson, Dan Ellwell, Paul Sandry, and Aaron Parrish, while trustees Jessica Martinz, Christina Relyea and Julie Kreiman were opposed.

Editor Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at editor@bigforkeagle.com or (406) 758-4433.