Sunday, March 07, 2021

School board advocates for faster teacher vaccines, asks governor to keep mask mandate in place

Reporter | January 20, 2021 1:00 AM

As teachers were recently pushed back to a later phase of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, the Whitefish School Board is sending a letter to Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte advocating for teachers to receive the vaccine sooner.

Gianforte recently released revisions to the vaccine rollout which moved teachers and school staff who do not have an underlying medical condition from Phase 1B to Phase 1C. This will mean teachers will likely not have the vaccine available to them until well after spring break and, before the adjustments, teachers would have been eligible by the end of the month.

The school board trustees last week approved sending the letter to Gianforte with some saying that if enough school districts do the same it might change the distribution schedule.

“I think it is good to go on the record that we’re saying please vaccinate our teachers as soon as possible, or at least offer that to them,” Board Chair Katie Clarke said.

The letter addresses both the importance of vaccines for teachers and school staff, but also requests that the mandate requiring the wearing of masks in public spaces including schools stay in effect for the foreseeable future.

As it was originally written the letter prioritized keeping the mask mandate, but the trustees voted to revise it to bring the sentiments regarding the vaccination of teachers to the forefront.

“What we’re trying to say is put our teachers back higher on the list, they’re frontline workers,” trustee Darcy Schellinger said.

In the written request, the school board brings to light how other states are prioritizing vaccinating their teachers and asks Gov. Gianforte to reconsider his revisions to the plan.

“Republican governors in the western states have seen how important teachers are in our efforts to keep education and the economy functioning,” the letter reads. “Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona declared teachers will be among the first to be vaccinated with first responders. Utah's governor, Gary Herbert also announced that Utah teachers will be vaccinated in January.”

“We urge you as you make decisions about the vaccination process, to keep teachers near the

top of your list,” the letter concludes.

The board, in the letter, says wearing masks in the schools has helped keep buildings open.

The Whitefish City Council earlier this month approved an ordinance that would require people to wear masks in public places such as businesses if Gianforte does away with the statewide mandate put in place by his predecessor. It’s a move the governor said at the beginning of January that he would consider once certain parameters were in place including the distribution of the vaccine.

However, the city’s mask requirement does not apply to schools. Trustees say this would leave the board in a vulnerable situation of having to make a decision of how to proceed further, and all of that would be eliminated if the statewide mandate remains in place.

During public comment, the Whitefish teachers union President Lisa Bloom voiced her approval of the board’s letter.

“I think it would speak volumes to teachers that you really support them by going through with that letter,” Bloom said.

The school board planned to send the letter to the governor’s office as soon as possible.