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Montana rule urges schools to give parents say on masks

August 31, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this March 9, 2021, file photo, students with signs ride in the back of a pickup truck around Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District's face mask requirement in Kalispell, Mont. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte announced on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 a rule encouraging schools to give parents final say on whether children should wear masks in schools, after several large school districts in the state implemented mask requirements for all students. (Hunter D'Antuono/Flathead Beacon via AP, File)
FILE - In this March 9, 2021, file photo, students with signs ride in the back of a pickup truck around Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District's face mask requirement in Kalispell, Mont. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte announced on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 a rule encouraging schools to give parents final say on whether children should wear masks in schools, after several large school districts in the state implemented mask requirements for all students. (Hunter D'Antuono/Flathead Beacon via AP, File)
FILE - In this March 9, 2021, file photo, students with signs ride in the back of a pickup truck around Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District's face mask requirement in Kalispell, Mont. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte announced on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 a rule encouraging schools to give parents final say on whether children should wear masks in schools, after several large school districts in the state implemented mask requirements for all students. (Hunter D'Antuono/Flathead Beacon via AP, File)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte announced a rule Tuesday that encourages schools to give parents final say on whether children should wear facial coverings after several large districts imposed mask requirements amid surging COVID-19 infections in the state.

It comes a day after the U.S. Department of Education opened civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

Gianforte, a Republican, stopped short of issuing an outright order. Still, medical experts said the rule would likely weaken public trust in masks as an effective tool to combat COVID-19.

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The governor said in a statement that masking in schools, which is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is “based on inconclusive research.” He also said masking could have adverse effects on children’s “health, well-being and development.”

The CDC issued its guidance in light of the rapid spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19. A growing body of evidence suggests masks are highly effective in limiting the spread of the virus in schools.

The new rule says schools should consider “parental concerns” when adopting mask mandates and should provide parents the ability to opt out of health-related mandates for a wide array of reasons, including physical and mental health, developmental needs, religious beliefs and moral convictions.

Adam Meier, director of the state health department, said in a statement that the agency “would encourage schools to take into account all of these factors and implement any mitigation strategies in the least restrictive means as possible to maximize learning outcomes for Montana children.”

Districts that have implemented mask requirements include Missoula and Billings. In Missoula, a group of parents who oppose the mandate has sued. They cite the same research mentioned by Gianforte, including a CDC study from May 2021 that found masking in schools did not have a statistically significant impact on the spread of COVID-19.

In a letter to parents and staff Tuesday, Helena Public Schools Superintendent Rex Weltz wrote that the district would continue its mask requirement for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Students who opt out of wearing a mask can access virtual learning rather than attending school in-person.

Weltz said the policy represents “the least restrictive guidelines necessary to preserve the health and safety of students and staff.”

In Billings, Superintendent Greg Upham said schools will continue to require masks for all students and staff. The district will offer virtual learning for students who won’t wear face coverings.

A group of medical associations called a meeting to discuss their response to the rule. Several medical experts cited concern over the possibility that it would reduce masking as COVID-19 infections surge across Montana.

“I worry that the governor’s office is stepping out of its usual role in trying to interpret medical literature in a way that’s going to be confusing to parents,” said Dr. Lauren Wilson, vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “In the context of heightened emotions right now, that is a poor choice.”

Dr. Greg Holzman, Montana’s former chief medical officer who served through April, said he did not understand the reasoning for the new rule because it is not binding.

“I don’t think it helps when we are trying to bring our communities together to work together to end this pandemic,” he said. “I’m not sure what this really adds except for challenges.”

Holzman said data used to back the rule was cherry-picked to fit the administration’s views on masks.

“I just don’t understand where they’re pulling this and why they are choosing these few articles and don’t have any comments on any of the other stuff coming out,” he said.

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This story has been corrected to show that the new Montana rule encourages schools to give parents the final say on school masking requirements, but it does not require schools to do that.