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Updated: Butte School Board mandates masks to start year

The board that oversees the Butte School District voted 6-0 early Monday night to mandate that all teachers, students and staff wear masks for at least the first four weeks of the school year that starts Aug. 31.

The vote followed about 40 minutes of spirited comments from opponents and proponents that got boisterous early before board Chairwoman Ann Boston warned both sides to be civil or she would adjourn the meeting.

“We don’t need booing,” she said. “This is Butte, Montana. Everybody has a right to speak.”

Each person after that drew applause and grumbles from the crowd of about 100 at West Elementary School, but general civility reigned.

Those in favor said masks allowed students to stay in school and learn better last year. They also cited studies saying masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Parent Meagan Beckett said her younger daughter got COVID and it took two months for her to get better.

“We’ve got to keep the schools open,” Beckett said. “I am asking, begging, pleading — please, please, please pass a mask mandate.”

Opponents balked at studies cited by proponents, saying there were no medical justifications for masks. Several parents and four Butte school students spoke against them, saying they were also stifling, often dirty and did more harm than good.

Rose Griner, who said she had four kids in Butte schools, noted that school board members were wearing masks but predicted that would change as soon as the meeting was over and the media was gone.

“What are all of you going to do once you leave here? You are going to take off your masks,” Griner said.

In the end, the board voted without comment to back the mandate recommended by School Superintendent Judy Jonart.

Jonart said COVID cases had spiked in the community because of the delta variant and even though vaccines were still the best way to curb its spread, “masks are a very important part of our mitigation and prevention strategy.”

Jonart also cited the latest CDC guidelines saying masks should be required in schools regardless of vaccine status, as well as guidance from local health officials.

The Butte-Silver Bow Health Department is recommending schools mandate masks based largely on the rise in COVID cases due to the delta variant and vaccine rates among kids aged 12 to 17.

It says there is now a “high” level of transmission but as of Sunday, only 50% of eligible youth in the community are vaccinated, when 75% to 90% is recommended. Latest numbers show overall COVID cases here at 22.45 per 100,000.

Butte Central Schools decided last week to mandate masks indoors for the first nine weeks of the school year starting Aug. 23, to be reevaluated after that. Jonart said the policy in Butte Schools would be evaluated continuously and the board could review it each month.

As with most every debate in America today, even at the local level, this one took on political overtones that played out well before the meeting.

Patrick Webb, a leader of the libertarian, conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Montana, has been vocal against mask mandates on his personal Facebook page and posted the time of Monday’s school board meeting with a message “Calling all parents & concerned citizens.”

Americans for Prosperity is a political advocacy group funded largely by Charles Koch of the Koch brothers, and Webb, on his Facebook page, has opposed new masking guidelines by the CDC.

In response to Webb’s invite, the Butte-Silver Bow Democratic Central Committee sent an email Monday morning encouraging its members to “outnumber, respectfully” those supporting Webb.

The email said the Koch brothers were trying to defund “everything the government does” and encouraged local Democrats “to wear green, and if possible, have a positive sign made up” in support of teachers, public education and protecting kids.

The conservatives “find and exploit issues like this in hopes that good people with (will) quit boards and be replaced by people that will do their bidding” the Democrat email said.

Neither group suggested that people could have individual opinions or disagreements that were not based on politics.

About 20 people in the crowd wore green shirts, including the first person to speak — Michael Kenison, president of the Butte Teachers Union. He said “science has proven that masks work” and they allowed kids to stay in school last year.

“We don’t have to wear masks forever, but we do have to wear masks now,” he said. “Let’s not make this a political thing, let’s make this a common sense thing.”

Webb spoke next, saying he lived in Helena but as the grassroots director for Americans for Prosperity in Montana, had worked with many supporters in Butte.

He said masks should be optional with decisions left to parents.

“We should absolutely listen to them, not to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Arika Dolence, an incoming freshman at Butte High School, and Iris Brown, an incoming junior, both spoke against masks. Brown said their adverse effects outweighed any positives and Dolence said they made kids feel fearful.

“It’s not forever? We’re still having a discussion about this,” she said.

Jonart noted that the policy only applies inside school buildings, and under federal guidelines, masks must be worn on school buses.

Although the latest CDC guidelines recommend masks, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte has not issued a statewide mask mandate for schools, citing hospitalization and death statistics and saying it’s a matter of personal responsibility.

But school districts, like the ones in Butte, are weighing in. As examples, Missoula County Public Schools recently adopted a universal mask mandate for at least the first six seeks. Kalispell Public Schools decided last week to encourage masks but not mandate them.

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