GFPS likely to lift mask mandate for elementary schools after Jan. 1

Great Falls Public Schools is looking at lifting the mask requirement for elementary schools in the new year, if COVID numbers continue trending downward.

Superintendent Tom Moore said during the school board’s Dec. 13 meeting that the numbers in the district and the community were the lowest since the start of the school year in August.

As of Dec. 8, the community-wide cases per 100,000 and positivity rate were the lowest since July.

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He said district officials are still concerned about the spread of the virus and will be maintaining sanitation and distancing protocols.

Moore said that the vaccination numbers among those aged 5-11 are five percent in the county have at least one dose, and of those 12-17, about 37 percent have at least one dose.

County wide, 53 percent of the eligible population have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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Moore said that over the next few weeks, he’ll be talking to the district’s COVID advisory team, which includes medical professionals, and likely making a recommendation to lift the mask requirement in elementary schools after Jan. 1, with the caveat that should COVID numbers increase or there be an outbreak, or other concern, the mask requirements can be reinstated.

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He said that with the health protocols, the district “has been able to weather the storm of COVID” and remained open for the most part, after the governor’s statewide shutdown of schools in March 2020 that lasted for the remainder of that school year.

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Moore said that after that, it was apparent students weren’t benefiting by being quarantined and not interacting with each other and students didn’t perform as well in the remote settings, so this school year, the district returned to full in-person learning, though there have been a few closures for isolated COVID issues.

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As the district was preparing to come back this year, Moore said that in August, they were getting information from health professionals about the COVID variant that was impacting younger people and they followed guidance and counsel from local health professionals and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has continued to recommend masks in schools.

“That’s who we were listening to, not politicians,” or the people coming to school board meetings with opinions, Moore told the board.

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He said that the mask issue has caused the community to “”become factioned, we’ve been arguing with each other, we’ve been name calling. It’s been the most difficult six months of my 40 year career in public education.”

Moore said that the district has followed the recommendations from health professionals, despite political outcry.

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“I’m sorry that we haven’t been able to maintain a more decisive policy, but one of the things they recommend is that your policies are flexible based on the trends in your local communities,” Moore said.

The district has tried to make their COVID policies flexible to adjust based on local transmission rates, Moore said, but it’s been a stressful environment for teachers and that some have said they’re exhausted and considering leaving teaching.

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“At this point in our evolution here in Great Falls, I think it’s time to quit fighting with one another and come together with some unity about what’s most important and that’s the academic learning…and emotional and mental well being,” of students, and stop fighting about masks, Moore said.

Moore said with that in mind, he will likely recommend lifting the mask requirement after Jan. 1, but continue to recommend them, and allow families to make their own decisions and wear masks then they feel them necessary, “without ridicule, without teasing.”

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Moore said that he’s making that recommendation, as long as COVID numbers remain low, since “I just don’t think it’s worth it to continue to fight with one another. I’ve had just about as much as I can take of sitting here quietly and listening.”

Later in the meeting, several board members said they appreciated those parents and community members who came to speak at school board meetings and hoped they continue to put that passion into other aspects of the school district and the issues it faces going forward.

Moore also told the board that the district is planning to invite graduating seniors in the education programs at Montana colleges to come to Great Falls for a weekend, expenses paid by the district with local sponsorship support, in the hopes of recruiting them to teach at GFPS. He said that more information about that program would be forthcoming.

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He told the board that district will also start recruiting in January for a GFPS citizens academy for community members who want to learn more about the district as part of a community engagement effort.

Moore said the plan is a six week program, for 2.5 hours per night with a meal served, focusing on different topics each week and in different locations, to learn about governance, facilities, programs and more. He said more information would be available in January and if successful, the district might continue the program.