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Bozeman School District responds to DPHHS mask emergency rule

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Posted at 2:58 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 17:38:22-04

BOZEMAN — Officials with Bozeman School District 7 released an update to staff and parents Tuesday after the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued an emergency rule regarding face masks in Montana public schools.

The Gianforte administration’s health department issued an emergency rule Tuesday saying school districts should give students and parents the opportunity to opt-out of complying with a face-mask mandate meant to protect from the spread of COVID-19.

But school and education officials said districts in Montana, including Bozeman, already are weighing the concerns of parents, students and staff who object to wearing masks, and offering them options.

Here's the update:

"Bozeman Public Schools has reviewed the emergency rule [dphhs.mt.gov] issued by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, and the District reads the rule as permissive as it specifically provides that school districts “should consider” parental concerns and “should provide” an opt-out system for certain reasons. The District has done both.

Bozeman Public Schools’ mask policy #1905, and associated guidance, found HERE [docs.google.com], is in full compliance with the emergency rule released today. Masks continue to be required in all buildings for all students, staff, and visitors while indoors. The District will continue to enforce its face covering guidelines to ensure the safety and welfare of all students and staff.

The rule recognizes the authority of local boards of trustees to adopt public health protocols in accordance with the Montana Constitution. The School District has received hours of public comment from parents and others in the community on this issue, demonstrating its clear desire to take the wishes of parents into account.

Furthermore, the School District provides parents and students the ability to opt-out of wearing a mask. One option for parents to consider is a 100% remote learning option. Bozeman Online Charter School (BOCS) K-8, or the Bozeman Online High School (BOHS) 9-12 are available options for parent consideration. The School District is prepared to provide assistance to parents looking to exercise those options. Parents seeking a remote learning option should contact their school Principal.

The School District is prepared to consider the factors identified in the rule and accommodate requests for a medical/disability or religious exception request. Policy #1905, and associated guidance, HERE [docs.google.com], addresses the requirements of the Emergency Rule and full compliance with guidance from federal agencies on this topic, and the prohibition on religious discrimination.

If the family has medical documentation about the need for the exception the District can initiate discussions under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for the District to consider the necessary factors and develop a plan of reasonable accommodation. The District can also consider religious beliefs and consider a plan of accommodation for a requested religious exception. These plans will be completed in a manner consistent with the law and questions or requests to seek exceptions should be directed to building principals.

Thank you for your continued support of Bozeman Public Schools.

Casey Bertram, Interim Superintendent"

“Montana students deserve to be back in their classroom in as normal and safe an environment as possible. Montana parents deserve to know their voices are heard in schools when health-related mandates for their children are being considered. They also deserve to know that schools are reviewing reliable data and scientific research about the impacts of mask mandates on students,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement.

The emergency rule says schools should give parents the ability to opt-out of health-related mandates, including wearing a mask or face covering, for reasons including: physical health; mental health; emotional health; psychosocial health; developmental needs; or religious belief, moral conviction, or other fundamental right the impairment of which could negatively impact the physical, mental, emotional, or psychosocial health of students.

Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE), said the rule does not really change what schools already are doing, regarding mask mandates.

If a staffer or student does not wish to wear a mask, school districts are weighing their concerns and giving them options, such as remote learning, she said.

“The governor would do well just to continue to support local control instead of providing disinformation, grandstanding and stirring a political pot that’s already making everyone’s lives miserable,” Curtis said.

The MFPE represents thousands of public-school teachers across the state.

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said school boards already must consider many of the exceptions outlined in the rule, and are attempting to find the best way to keep students safe and address parental concerns about mask mandates.

After signing the emergency rule, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier said, “A number of scientific studies indicate that universal mask use among children can adversely affect their health and development, particularly among children with learning or developmental disabilities. DPHHS respects the authority of parents to make health-related decisions in the best interest of their children, including whether wearing a mask in school is appropriate. DPHHS would encourage schools to take into account all of these factors and implement any mitigation strategies in the least restrictive means as possible to maximize learning outcomes for Montana children.”

Although early into the school year, schools across Montana have already had issues related to COVID that required students to be sent home. Due to COVID exposure, some schools have already needed to implement remote learning for a large number of students.Although early into the school year, schools across Montana have already had issues related to COVID that required students to be sent home. Due to COVID exposure, some schools have already needed to implement remote learning for a large number of students.

This is a developing story and will be updated on tonight's MTN News at 5:30 and 10 PM

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DPHHS issues emergency rule regarding mask mandates in Montana schools