Superintendent recommends returning to school with mask recommendation, no mandate; GFPS board to vote later

Great Falls Public Schools will open Aug. 25 in person with a strong encouragement for mask use, but no mask mandate, according to Superintendent Tom Moore’s recommendation.

Moore said during the Aug. 9 school board meeting that after consulting local health professionals, the GFPS leadership team and considering local COVID-19 information, that masks are highly recommended to prevent the spread of the virus, but not required for the opening of school.

Masks will be required on all school buses, Moore said, per a federal order.

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Because emergency policies are still in place that the board adopted last year that included a mask requirement, the board will need to vote to amend that rule. They did not vote during the Aug. 9 meeting but will vote during the Aug. 19 special meeting to revise those policies.

GFPS did not livestream the meeting for the public. At least 50 members of the public attended the meeting, many of them in an overflow room with a Zoom feed to the meeting. Many of those in attendance spoke in opposition to masks in schools.

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Moore said he was presented with a petition of 525 signatures in opposition to masks, as well as 50-60 phone calls and emails expressing concern regarding masks.

Moore said that he’s particularly interested in what pediatricians have to say as they look at children holistically and that the local team making recommendations included a local pediatrician. He said that the team recommends masks due to the local spike in cases, but there’s also data and literature in which pediatricians agree that masks have a social impact on children.

Moore said school districts received a letter last week from Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Montana Office of Public Instruction asking districts to let parents make choices regarding masks and to monitor at the local level.

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Moore said that as of Aug. 9, the county’s case rate was 30.5 per 100,000.

On Aug. 4, the rate was 20.7 per 100,000.

The peak of local cases was November 2020 and the case rate was 227 per 100,000, though it was partly that high due to a reporting backlog.

That came down to 98 per 100,000 on Dec. 1, 2020.

On July 14, the case rate was 7 per 100,000.

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According to state data, the county added 70 new cases on Aug. 9 and there were 276 active cases.

Moore said that Cascade County City-County Health Department told him Monday that the number of active cases would come down on Tuesday.

“We’re nowhere near where we were last year in November,” Moore said, but in a different place than the end of the school year this spring when case numbers had dropped significantly.

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Moore said that they’re starting to see more juvenile cases and that there had been two to three juvenile hospitalizations in the county over the last month or so.

So for now, Moore said his recommendation was to open schools on Aug. 25 with a recommendation to wear masks but leave that choice to families.

“We may get to a place where we have to require it,” Moore said.

The district will report their COVID case data on Fridays during the school year, Moore said. CCHD posts a weekly update on Wednesdays.

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Ember Briles said she believes masks are detrimental to children. She said her daughter was a freshman last year and was contact traced six times last year. Briles said that made her transition to high school more difficult and that her daughter never had symptoms or tested positive.

“These kids need an opportunity to be kids,” Briles said.

Trina Meyer said that masks are not good for children and that those who wanted to wear masks should, but that she and her children shouldn’t be forced to wear masks.

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About two dozen parents said that they opposed mask requirements, questioned the efficacy of masks and wanted the decision to be left to parents. Several said masks and vaccines were unconstitutional. All were civil and polite in sharing their opinions with the board.

Some said it was a privacy violation to inquire about vaccines in schools, however, state law requires several vaccines for children entering public schools and a recent law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of vaccination status does not apply to public school districts.

The district is not requiring vaccines for employees and is no longer allowed to ask if employees have been vaccinated, but Kerry Datillo, human resources director, estimated that 50-60 percent of employees were vaccinated and it was likely closer to 80 percent among teachers.