LAUREL — Laurel students started their school year with masks optional and Monday night, Laurel School Board Trustees changed the district's health policy with an aim to curb mask-related bullying.
"I do want it to make everyone aware that they have the right to choose what they want to do for their health situations. But I don't want other people to be harassed because of that. If you are a mask wearer, great wear your mask. I appreciate that because that's your choice. If you don't wear a mask, then don't wear a mask, I appreciate that choice. I think this also helps with our teachers, our admin, and our students," said Brittani Hunter, Laurel School Board vice chair.
Hunter said she was the one who originally brought forward the policy change at an Aug. 9 school board meeting.
Trustees voted 5-1 to change the Policy 1905, which governs student, staff and community health and safety in the district. Now, allegations of bullying over whether someone is wearing a mask will be investigated before administrators take any disciplinary action.
"Basically, it is our job whether students and staff, whether they are wearing a face mask or not, there will be no harassment and we will take that seriously and investigate that," said Superintendent Linda Filpula.
Laurel students and teachers started school last week on Aug. 18. In a letter home to parents before the start of school, Filpula said masks are encouraged but not required. She also encouraged parents to keep their kids home if they were sick and urged frequent hand hygiene. Read the full letter by clicking here.
The meeting room in the Laurel administration building was packed with attendees. Before the trustee's vote, they heard public comment.
Laura Kirschenmann, mother of a laurel second grade student and health care worker in Billings, said she was concerned about the possibility of kids bringing COVID-19 home.
"The students may spread it to the teacher or fellow students who may take it home to their spouse, children, parents or grandparents. People may exercise this personal choice outside of the public school system, but I feel we need to reconsider the decision to keep everyone safe within the walls of our schools," Kirschenmann said.
Deva McNiven, a Laurel mother with three students in the district, said her kids have sinus issues that were made worse by the time they had to wear masks last year.
"My son is a senior, he told me he will absolutely not go back to school if he has to wear a mask. He has asthma. He is barely breathing because of the (wildfire) smoke. He uses his inhaler at least four times a day and he has told me that he will not go back to school if he has to wear a mask. I think you need to make both sides of this, because yes we may be, and I stress maybe, preventing COVID, but I can guarantee you are endangering my student's health by wearing a mask," McNiven said.
Watch the complete school board meeting by clicking here.