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Whitefish School Board makes wearing masks optional

Whitefish Pilot | June 23, 2021 1:00 AM

The Whitefish School Board in a special meeting on June 15 voted to make wearing of masks optional for students and staff districtwide.

The board approved moving to phase three of the district’s COVID-19 guidelines, which includes dropping the mask mandate that had been in place for schools.

The district’s guidelines were recently updated, along with its services plan, which details the process the district has been implementing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both documents were approved by the school board in addition to moving to less restrictive procedures within the school buildings.

However, Superintendent Dave Means, said the documents are continually being revisited and changes are likely to occur before the fall.

“The important part is that we anticipate a lot of changes in these guidelines throughout the summer,” Means told the board. “We’re just going to take the latest information and guidance to update them.”

In phase three the district returns to more typical procedures and schedules in all of the schools, but Means noted it is possible the schools would have to move back in phases of the reopening plan if positive cases of the coronavirus were to increase within the district, or possibly even within the Flathead County. Schools may also have to modify how they operate within the phases based upon future guidance, he noted.

Currently COVID-19 cases are low according to the internal data that the district collects — only one positive in the schools within the last three weeks. Cases are also fairly low countywide, as is stated in a letter from the Flathead City-County Health Department addressed to the superintendents of schools within the county.

“As COVID-19 vaccinations increase and community COVID-19 cases are minimal, we’re expecting to move into a safer space this summer and fall,” the letter reads. “If the incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 disease continues to remain low, masking may be optional for students, faculty and staff, as long as other precautionary measures are followed.”

The letter also states that students and staff should still follow standard infection prevention protocols such as practicing good hand hygiene, staying home when they are sick and using reduced capacities in classrooms and other spaces whenever possible.

Effective immediately upon the school board’s vote on June 15, wearing face coverings within school facilities or school sanctioned activities became optional. In recent weeks several schools within the county and state of Montana have also made masks optional.

In addition, public visitors will now be allowed into the school buildings, health screenings are recommended to be conducted at home instead of required upon entry to the buildings, and extracurricular activities will go on with modified guidelines specific for each activity.

The option of participating in remote learning still remains available for students who have medical or COVID-related reasons. For onsite learning, student and staff schedules will occur mostly as they did prior to the pandemic.

Means said a lot of the safety protocols are still in place, such as requiring accurate seating charts for contact tracing and quarantines of 10 to 14 days will still be required for those deemed as close contacts. Students who have been vaccinated will not need to quarantine. Physical distancing of 3 feet or more is now recommended to prevent transmission of the disease, according to Means.

The board approved moving to phase three on a 6-1 vote, with trustee Todd Lengacher opposed. Lengacher disagreed that positive cases of COVID-19 are low across the county, but Means presented internal data collected in the school district to back up the recommendation.

“We have to look at our own internal data to make decisions as well, and our own internal data definitely says it's (case numbers) been decreasing significantly throughout the past few months,” Means told the board.

“The rationale for bringing in this at this time is that throughout the entire pandemic we have often said we would like to consider the recommendations of our Flathead County health officers and local health professionals, and we have a recommendation that supports that at this time; I think it's the right thing to do,” he added. “With our current data about incidence rates as well as current guidance, I think it’s the best option for us to do it at this time.”

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