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Helena school board gives superintendent authority to issue mask mandates

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After hearing several hours of public comment, the Helena Public Schools Board of Trustees voted Tuesday to give Superintendent Rex Weltz the authority to issue mask requirements for preK-8 schools and programs.

The motion passed on a vote of 7-1, with Trustee Jennifer Walsh casting the lone dissenting vote. 

Per the amendment to policy 1905, Weltz can require mask use if levels of COVID-19 community transmission in Lewis and Clark County are deemed "substantial" or "high" as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Tuesday, Lewis and Clark Public Health reported that the county is listed as an area of "substantial" community transmission.

Approximately 55% of the eligible population in Lewis and Clark County is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 so far. Vaccinations have not yet been approved for children younger than 12, which is why the amendment applies to students in grades preK-8.

During Tuesday's meeting, Weltz said the goal of this policy change and the potential to reintroduce masks within some school buildings is a concerted effort to ensure that students are able to remain in the schools and maintain a normal-as-possible school year.

"The best education is one that is normal as possible," Weltz said.

The authorization gives Weltz the power to make an announcement on the matter no later than 3 p.m. on a Friday for the next school week. Signs would be posted in the buildings where face masks are required.

Masking is currently set to remain optional at the high-school level, as vaccines are available to the older students. 

Weltz said he and his leadership team are still working out answers to questions such as whether face coverings would be required just during school hours or 24 hours in the buildings where they are mandated.

Board chair Luke Muszkiewicz noted that the amendment itself is not a mask mandate, but rather it gives Weltz the flexibility to adapt to those changing transmission rates in the community. He reiterated that it's the duty of the board to do everything it can to keep students in school five days per week.

A district-wide mandate requiring face masks in all buildings was lifted on July 1. This was after a significant amount of public comment from those on both sides of the argument for and against mandating mask use. 

The public comment period was much the same on Tuesday evening. The board heard more than three hours of public comment before making a decision. 

Some advocates for required masking this fall said this amendment was deficient. One person said the policy amendment was "reactionary" and not "precautionary." Many commenters called for more strict policy, asking that masking be made mandatory for all students. Nearly all cited CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics studies. 

Many opposed to mask mandates said face coverings deteriorate the quality of education received by students and cause students at critical developmental ages to miss out on social/emotional cues. Some said they believe masks and face coverings are ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Many were parents who said it should be up to them to decide whether or not their student wears a mask.

The first day of school for students in grades 1 through 6, the Project for Alternative Learning and 9th grade at Capital High School and Helena High School is Monday, Aug. 30. The first day of school for students in grades 7 and 8, along with those in grades 10-12 at CHS and HHS, is Tuesday, Aug. 31. The first day of school for kindergartners is set for Thursday, Sept. 2.


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