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Correspondence shows overwhelming support for Whitefish School Board

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | November 17, 2021 1:00 AM

For roughly the past 18 months throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the Whitefish School Board, not unlike school boards across the country, has received a significant amount of outrage from many parents and guardians for the procedures enacted to combat the spread of the virus.

But the Whitefish board in just over the last four weeks received 50-plus letters and emails showing overwhelming support of the district’s Covid mitigation strategies as well as general support.

There were several families that wrote in favor of the mask mandate for younger students, saying that the COVID-19 mitigation strategies implemented by the school district have helped them feel comfortable sending their children to school this year.

“Because of you, we have been able to send our children to in-person school knowing that reasonable precautions are being taken. Because of you, we have been able to keep our entire family healthy and our kids happy. Thank you, many times over,” an email from Whitefish parent Stasia Muhlner reads.

Public posting of written correspondence within the school board’s meeting packet began after the Aug. 12 meeting during which the board voted in favor of requiring masks at school for grades kindergarten through sixth. Of the 58 pages of written public correspondence attached to the Nov. 9 agenda, 51 individuals wrote in support of the school board in relation to the challenges faced over the last year and a half, while three were unsupportive of some Covid mitigation measures. A couple letters were unrelated to Covid policies.

A group of parents and community members recently launched an attempt to recall all seven Whitefish trustees.

Jenny Paatalo, a parent in the district who is organizing the petition, was upset with the way the board conducted itself at the Aug. 12 special board meeting that made masks mandatory for K-6 students among other Covid policies. The petition claims the board violated public participation laws.

Among the notes that mentioned the petition in the November packet, there was no support of the recall effort. Most called the attempt to recall the trustees nonsensical.

“I am appalled to hear about the upcoming efforts to recall the WSD Trustees!” Whitefish resident Amy Chisholm wrote in an email to the board on Oct. 18. “Please keep your chins up and know that the bulk of the citizens of this town support you and are thankful for all your hard work. You have been faced with some truly unprecedented circumstances and have made good-faith efforts to consider all sides of the issues before you.”

Even people outside of Whitefish from other parts of the state wrote to the board after hearing of the recall.

“Please know that many people across our state stand by you in your attempts to keep Whitefish schools safe and learner-centered,” Shelley Freese of Miles City wrote.

Some doctors and nurses in the local healthcare system, who are also parents of children in Whitefish, wrote the school board encouraging the continuation of requiring masks until a vaccination is widely available for children under 12.

Though the COVID-19 vaccination is now available for many younger kids, the board in their Nov. 9 meeting decided to wait until December to revisit the mask mandate so families have ample time to get their children vaccinated.

On the opposite side of the issue, a few parents questioned whether the use of masks was making a positive difference in Whitefish Schools. And one parent automatically assumed once the Covid vaccination was available to kids age 5 and up, then the mandate would immediately be lifted.

“Please reconsider your decision to require masks in Muldown,” a message from parents Adam and Aubrey Clark says. “I understand your intent is good and honorable — you only want to keep people safe. But myself and much of the Whitefish Schools community believe it is a measure that is actually doing little to mitigate the risk posed by COVID. In fact, it may actually be doing more harm than good.”

And although the written correspondence often directly referenced Covid strategies or the recall petition, many letters just expressed simple notes of thankfulness and gave encouragement to the Whitefish trustees to push on through this trying time.