Saying that schools are better poised to stay open if everyone in them wears masks, Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday extended a statewide mandate requiring the use of cloth face coverings to everyone in K-12 school buildings, both private and public.
It applies in counties with four or more active cases of the novel coronavirus.
"At the end of the day we all have that same goal of making sure that our kids can return to school safely," Bullock said. "However, for those (districts) that are strongly encouraging the wearing of masks or face coverings in buildings, I do fear that that won't be enough to keep those teachers and students safe. Every other public and government building requires face coverings. And there's no principled reason why the same shouldn't be the case in our schools."
The state has been under a mandatory mask requirement for counties with four or more active cases since mid-July, but the original directive exempted schools. Districts across the state in recent weeks have held long and often contentious meetings about what school will look as classes start in just a matter of weeks.
"I know that school districts are navigating and school boards are navigating through unprecedented times with sometimes competing viewpoints," Bullock said.
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The directive applies to indoor spaces as well as organized activities outdoors. For athletic events, that means that in organized groups of 50 or more, masks must be worn. There are exemptions for athletes for whom wearing a mask while engaging in strenuous activities would be unsafe.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen issued a statement following Bullock's press conference Wednesday critical of the announcement.
“The governor made a last-minute decision days before school begins and has once again left the Office of Public Instruction in the dark in his decision-making related to safely reopening schools," Arntzen said in the emailed statement. "I have in multiple efforts asked for clarification and collaboration and the governor continues to be vacant."
Through the state's response to the coronavirus, Arntzen, a Republican, has clashed with Bullock, a Democrat. Arntzen is seeking reelection this year, while Bullock is running for the U.S. Senate.
Both offices released their own school reopening plans within a few hours of each other back in July. Later that month, Arntzen said Bullock "has made a habit of siloed decision-making" when the governor directed $75 million in federal CARES funding toward helping schools prepare to reopen.
Following the emergency declaration the state is under, the governor's office has broad authority to take action on things such as last March's statewide school closure and the mask mandate.
A spokesman said the superintendent "believes that this decision should be made by local health authorities in coordination with school districts. Those two entities are the ones who have been working on school reopening plans at the local level."
In her statement, Arntzen said she wasn't notified of Bullock's decision on masks until nine minutes before Wednesday's press conference.
Bullock's office provided letters from July 31 from Bullock's chief of staff to Arntzen, seeking the superintendent's input on a mask mandate. The letter from Chief of Staff Ali Bovingdon asked Artnzen, "Is it your position that teachers, staff and students can safety return to school if local districts disregard guidance from the President and the CDC and do not require masks or face shields be worn?"
In response, it got a letter from Arntzen on Aug. 5. In that letter, Arntzen did not answer that question or provide input, but said her previous question asking for clarification whether schools were excluded from the face-covering mandate were not answered.
"The safety of Montana students is common ground and respecting the need for our local control state to have clear answers when directive are unclear serves us all well," Artnzen wrote.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Bullock said the governor's office "consulted with the superintendent to get some guidance and she refused."
The spokeswoman said the governor made his decision based on requests from educators around the state who asked for consistency.
"The governor’s staff has been participating in a weekly call with Superintendent Arntzen and OPI. His budget office staff work almost daily with OPI staff. We’ve communicated with them about plans to direct $65 million to schools, worked with them on a plan to distribute $10 million in transportation funding, and recently received a briefing together from DES (Disaster and Emergency Services) on how PPE (personal protective equipment) will be distributed to schools," she said in an email.