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Whitefish Schools keep mask requirement for grades K-6

Whitefish Pilot | October 20, 2021 1:00 AM

Following a lengthy discussion by the Whitefish School Board last week, trustees voted unanimously to retain its requirement that students and staff in grades K-6 wear masks while indoors.

The board decided to keep the same mitigation strategies and procedures in place related to COVID-19 that it first approved in August ahead of the start of the school year. The board said it will revisit the issue again at its December meeting.

When presenting the administration’s recommendation to continue with all the mitigation strategies currently in place, Whitefish Superintendent Dave Means explained that COVID-19 case numbers in Flathead Valley are still rising and some internal data indicators are in the “red” critical level indicating that all mitigation efforts are still needed at this time. One of those internal indicators is the seven-day average positivity rate which is at 24% for Whitefish School District, anything above 10% is considered in the high range.

“Our No. 1 priority is to work together to keep our schools open for in-person learning, we keep that in mind as we look at all the information tonight,” Means said at the meeting.

“We’re considering information from a variety of sources in different stakeholder groups,” he added. ”

Means explained that the total number of positive COVID-19 cases in Whitefish School District is a slightly lower percentage than other districts in the Valley, but also expressed that it's difficult to pinpoint whether one mitigation strategy is working better than another with the available data that schools collect.

“We do have fewer cases in our school district, but I don’t think you can say that is due to one mitigation approach or another,” Means told the board. “There are way too many variables to consider that could impact positive cases and there’s a lot of different mitigation strategies utilized by ourselves and other schools.”

Whitefish School District across all three schools has had a total of 39 student confirmed cases and five staff positive cases this school year as of Oct. 10. Last week’s active cases total for the district was 10 students — four at Muldown, five at the middle school and one at Whitefish High.

Some of Whitefish’s COVID-19 layered mitigation strategies other than the requirement for grades K-6 to wear face coverings include students and staff asked to stay home if feeling ill, physical distancing, good hand hygiene, daily cleaning, high-quality ventilation and optional vaccinations for staff and students 12 years of age and older, among others.

One of the main reasons why district administration and the school board say they continue to support masks required for grades kindergarten through sixth is because a COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available for kids in those grade levels. The board spent a great deal of time discussing the fact that because younger children do not have an option of a vaccine as protection from the infectious disease, students wearing masks would serve as extra protection until it is available for all school-aged children.

“We have no control over whether people choose to vaccinate their child or not, but it does offer one more mitigation layer,” Trustee Quincy Bennetts said. “But it's just not available to that age group yet.”

During the meeting, public comments were yet again split into differing opinions. Several stated they were parents who felt it should be a personal choice to put a mask on their child or not. Others wanted masks required for all the grade levels including seventh through 12th and some stated that they were concerned about the rising positive case numbers locally and thanked the board and school administration for their mitigation efforts.

However, Board Chair Katie Clarke addressed an issue raised by several board members who said they are hearing complaints from some folks saying they aren’t listening to what parents want when it comes to a mask mandate.

“It’s tricky because we hear both sides so we can’t possibly make everybody happy,” she said. “If listening means agreeing with your position then we’re never going to win that.”

Trustee Jerrie Boksich also said that the survey results from the beginning of the school year, which many commenters believed suggested that more than half of respondents were not in favor of a mask requirement, conflict with public comment the board has received through email. She said it's clear that the community is still divided on the mask issue, and there isn’t a clear consensus.

According to Boksich there were 66 community members writing in saying thank you and agreeing with the mask mandate after the Aug. 12 meeting, and then 20 emails saying it was the wrong thing to do.

“The 66-to-20 (number for and against masks) shows that we do have support for masking in the community,” Boksich said.

Whitefish Schools will continue with all the mitigation strategies at least until December when the board is set to revisit the topic.

The district is partnering with Logan Health — Whitefish for a free Covid testing clinic at the hospital for students and staff of the district.

Means said the district received a grant of $90,000 from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to support the testing site.

Students, who will only be tested with parent permission, will be referred by school nurses for either a rapid test or a PCR test. The clinic is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Those interested in testing, are asked to call the Logan Health-Whitefish Respiratory Screening Facility at 406-862-1754 for an appointment.

On Monday, there were 1,088 active COVID cases in the county. Active cases totals have hovered at or above the 1,000 mark since the beginning of September. Statewide, there were more than 11,000 active cases.

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