DPHHS issues emergency rules on masks in public schools

Gov. Greg Gianforte said Aug. 31 that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued an emergency rules regarding masks in school.

“Montana students deserve to be back in their classroom in as normal and safe an environment as possible. Montana parents deserve to know their voices are heard in schools when health-related mandates for their children are being considered. They also deserve to know that schools are reviewing reliable data and scientific research about the impacts of mask mandates on students,” Gov. Gianforte said. “This emergency rule ultimately directs schools to recognize the fundamental rights of parents, and because each child is unique and may face unique challenges, this rule urges schools to empower parents to do what’s best for their children.”

The Montana School Board Association said that the rule won’t change existing district mask rules adopted under Policy 1905.

Great Falls Public Schools is currently requiring masks only at the elementary schools since those students are not currently eligible for the vaccine.

Superintendent Tom Moore said the district was getting input from attorneys and others to see if the rule affects their existing version of Policy 1905 that allows him to implement mask rules depending on community transmission.

On Tuesday afternoon, GFPS said that it had reviewed the emergency rule and reads it “as permissive as it specifically provides that school districts ‘should consider’ parental concerns and ‘should provide’ an opt-out system for certain reasons. The district has done both. The district will continue to enforce its face covering guidelines to ensure the safety and welfare of all students and staff.”

The district took hours of public comment during two August meetings regarding the mask policy, as well as email, phone calls and a petition with about 500 signatures.

“The school district has been working with parents seeking options to the mask requirements in elementary schools. Parents seeking accommodations may contact their school principal. In addition, if a student has a medical reason for being unable to comply with the face covering guidelines, the district stands ready to have the conversation about what accommodations it can reasonably provide. Parents should work directly with their building principal or administrator to determine the appropriate steps for requesting a medical exemption. A reminder that appropriate documentation from a medical provider will be needed,” according to GFPS.

Other districts, such as Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, Butte and Billings have some form of mask requirement in public schools.

Masks are required on school buses, per federal mandate.

The emergency rule, issued by DPHHS, reads in part,

“In order to provide for the health, well-being, rights, and educational needs of students, schools and school districts should consider, and be able to demonstrate consideration of, parental concerns when adopting a mask mandate, and should provide students and/or their parents or guardians, on their behalf, with the ability to opt-out of health-related mandates, to include wearing a mask or face covering, for reasons including:

(a) physical health;

(b) mental health;

(c) emotional health;

(d) psychosocial health;

(e) developmental needs; or

(f) religious belief, moral conviction, or other fundamental right the impairment of which could negatively impact the physical, mental, emotional, or psychosocial health of students.”

Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association, said “The new rule does not change anything and is consistent with the provision in MTSBA Model Policy 1905 regarding exceptions to a face covering rule adopted by a board of trustees or implemented by the superintendent under authority delegated by a board of trustees.”

Each option in Policy 1905 includes a provision about exceptions which states:

Students, staff, volunteers, and visitors are not required to wear a face covering, mask, or face shield under this provision when:

  1. consuming food or drink; 
  2. engaging in strenuous physical activity; 
  3. giving a speech, lecture, class presentation, course lesson, or performance when separated by at least six feet of distance from the gathering, class, or audience; 
  4. communicating with someone who is hearing impaired; 
  5. identifying themselves; 
  6. receiving medical attention; or 
  7. precluded from safely using a face covering, mask, or face shield due to a medical or developmental condition. The superintendent, building principal, or their designee shall request documentation from a health care provider when considering an exception to this provision for medical or developmental reasons. The School District will comply with all applicable disability and discrimination laws when implementing this provision.

The rule is written in a manner that states schools should consider various factors when implementing a face covering rule. The rule continues to recognize the authority of local boards of trustees to adopt public health protocols in accordance with the Montana Constitution as previously stated by the Governor’s Office and the Montana Office of Public Instruction, Melton said.

“The model policy addresses the Emergency Rule and full compliance with EEOC guidance and the prohibition on religious discrimination in MTSBA Model Policy 3210. When a school district is presented with a request for exception to or “opt-out” of a face covering rule, the school leader will follow the established procedures as outlined in Questions 5 and 6 of the MT-PEC COVID-19 2021-2022 FAQ.  MTSBA has and continues to assist districts that receive requests for exceptions under MTSBA Model Policy 1905,” Melton said.

GFPS adopted Policy 1905 in May 2020 and it required masks in all school facilities, but revised it in August 2021 to give the superintendent the authority to implement mask rules depending on community transmission.

As of Aug. 31, Cascade County added 112 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 10,984 cases, of which 805 are currently active, according to the state.

Statewide, there were 890 new cases on Aug. 31.

As of Aug. 30, according to state data, there were 28 COVID and 171 non-COVID patients hospitalized at Benefis Health Center, leaving 41 beds available. There were five COVID and 15 non-COVID patients in the ICU, leaving one bed available. Five COVID and 15 non-COVID patients were on ventilators, leaving 13 available.

Great Falls Clinic had five COVID and eight non-COVID patients, leaving 23 beds available.

After signing the emergency rule, DPHHS Director Adam Meier said, “A number of scientific studies indicate that universal mask use among children can adversely affect their health and development, particularly among children with learning or developmental disabilities. DPHHS respects the authority of parents to make health-related decisions in the best interest of their children, including whether wearing a mask in school is appropriate. DPHHS 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.”

The emergency rule is effective immediately and can be found here.