BACK TO MASKS: School district reinstates mandate

Jason Bacaj – Enterprise Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2021

A rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the Livingston School District has pushed active case numbers to the highest they’ve been since the pandemic began, prompting the district to institute a universal mask mandate for all school buildings, beginning today.

As of Friday, 21 students and three staff members in the district were isolating with COVID-19. An open letter written by District Administrator Todd Wester and Superintendent Lynne Scalia states that four of five schools are affected with “two full sections offsite because all were deemed close contacts.” The letter is published in full on Page 4 of today’s Enterprise.

The letter states that with universal masking last year, there was “little to no evidence of spread” among students in buildings, or from COVID-positive students to adults. Optional masking has led to clear evidence of spread within schools and “whole classes in quarantine.”

As a result, the district determined that it needs to implement universal masking again as a mitigation strategy.

Parents who don’t want their children to wear masks can enter their students in the Park Online Education Expedition. Teachers will provide lessons for off-site students until enrollment in POEE can take place, the letter states.

Under the mask mandate, according to the letter, students will be taught correct use of a mask, they’ll be provided a mask if they don’t have one, and students who refuse to wear a mask will have their parents called to determine if the parent wishes the student to wear a mask or to arrange for off-site instruction.

“Put simply, this is not what we had hoped for,” Scalia said in a separate letter, written with Director of Business Services Josh Viegut, that was sent to parents on Sept. 9. “Universal masking may provide us a means to keep students in school, safe and learning.”

An update on the mask requirement will be provided at the regularly scheduled School Board meeting set for 6 p.m. on Sept. 14.


Statewide controversy on masks

Mask mandates in public schools have been a hot topic around the state in recent weeks, as the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued an emergency rule on Aug. 31 that told public schools they “should consider, and be able to demonstrate they considered” parental concerns around a mandate.

The emergency rule also stated that the scientific literature is “not conclusive” around whether masking reduces the spread of viral infections.

That same day DPHHS issued the emergency rule, 32 local doctors and nurses published a letter to the editor in The Enterprise advising people to follow four points: Get the vaccine if you’re eligible; wear masks, keep physical distance and wash your hands; get tested immediately if you get sick; and stay healthy by eating well and remaining active.

Wednesday, the Montana Nurses Association issued a memo refuting the DPHHS emergency rule, stating that the rule “promotes junk science” and that the rule “is not worth challenging because it contains no regulatory content.”

The MNA memo further states that the evidence cited by DPHHS contains “four clear examples of misinformation that continues to confuse and divide our communities.”

The memo points out that one study cited wasn’t peer reviewed and carries a disclaimer that it “should not be used to guide clinical practice,” another study actually shows that masks work at reducing virus spread, and a third study actually analyzes the spread of influenza rather than COVID.

Another piece of evidence cited by DPHHS was an article published in New York Magazine, which the MNA memo lampooned, stating “an opinion writer for a magazine about New York City who doesn’t believe in public health is being cited to drive Montana school policies.”

Park County currently has 77 active cases of COVID-19, according to data from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Statewide, there are 7,589 active cases and 351 hospitalizations due to the virus.