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Bullock school mask mandate prompts emergency Lincoln School Board meeting

At their regular Aug. 10 meeting, the Lincoln School Board opted to resume in-person teaching at Lincoln Public Schools when classes start Aug. 24. However, a directive issued by Governor Steve Bullock Aug. 12 prompted an emergency Zoom meeting Aug. 17, to re-examine their decision.

"We approved going back to school, and parents had the option of their kids going online," School board President Aaron Birkholz told the BVD. He said under their initial school re-opening plan, masks weren't required while students were in class and physically distanced, but they would be required between classes, in hallways or when appropriate distancing between students wasn't possbile."Then... the governor came out and said everyone had to have a mask on at all times."

Bullock's new order amends his July 15 mask mandate, which covered "indoor spaces open to the public" and "certain organized outdoor activities," to specifically include all public and private K-12 schools. "Given the acute risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools, it is vital that their plans include mandatory face coverings in counties with four or more active cases" Bullock's directive noted.

In it, he asserts that "indoor school spaces are considered indoor space open to the public," and that "school-related outdoor activities are considered organized outdoor activities."

The new directive effectively changed the parameters of the Montana School Board Association's Policy 1905, which addresses COVID-19 emergency measures, specifically distancing measures and mask requirements.

Prior to the school mask mandate, school boards could opt to either provide masks and require staff and students to wear them at all time while in any school building, or only require masks at the discretion of the administration.

The new directive effectively eliminated the second option, which had been adopted by the Lincoln School Board and administration..

"It's pretty clear there's no way around the mask mandate. Kids have to have them on all the time," Birkholz said at the outset of Monday's meeting, which gave the board the chance to adopt the truncated Policy 1905 and implement the mask mandate. It also served as an opportunity to discuss other potential options for the school year with teachers and parents who joined in.

The debate revolved around the stress student's might feel at being forced to wear masks all day - with some high school students faced with wearing them even longer as they went to after-school jobs - versus the possible mental and educational impacts they may face through distance learning.

An option considered and discussed in detail involved all K-6 classes continuing in person at school, while 7-12 students attended classes remotely.

"It's so important for the younger students to have that face-to-face if they can get it," Superintendent Jen Packer said. Birkholz likewise suggested that younger kids might adapt more easily to wearing masks all the time.

Packer said the plan would provide the elementary teachers more flexibility to give the younger kids time to get outside at regular intervals to take a break from wearing their masks, while also streamlining junior high and high school teaching, since the teachers wouldn't have to divide their attention between online students and physical students.

The school's plan for normal, structured daily class schedules this year was seen as a way to help the students attending remotely. Using Zoom or Google classrooms, remote students can take part in classes on the same schedule, which most believed would help them stay focused on their schoolwork.

As the discussion progressed, and as teachers and parents weighed in, they came up with solutions for several lingering questions about hands-on classes such as music, shop and art.

But it also became clear that completely upending the plan in place for junior high and high school students had serious obstacles. Some students would likely have to be at the school part or most of the day for in-person instruction regardless; some working parents can't stay with their kids to make sure they're attending and participating in classes; and there were questions about bandwidth issues for households with multiple students trying to attend class online simultaneously. Some junior high and high school teachers also had concerns about rushing to shift entirely to online learning in such a short time. Additionally, there were questions about eligibility for extracurricular activities and sports for students who worked from home. Shane Brown, Lincoln's Elementary principal and the school's athletic director, said other Class C schools are moving ahead with their sports schedules, and working out how may people can fit into gyms.

While concerns about extended periods of mask wearing led to the in-depth discussion, in the end, school board member Wendi Dietz said she thought they'd made the issue too complicated.

"You either opt to keep your kids at home, or you opt to send them to school," she said.

Fellow board member Jay Terman agreed. "If we have a percentage of the high school kids there learning, they're going to benefit far more than (they'll) lose out, as far as I'm concerned, and it gives the teachers better control. And they're already prepared to teach in the fashion we've guided them into up to this point."

He said students who come to school initially may decide to switch to online learning, if they find wearing a mask is too distracting for learning.

As the meeting wound down, Packer summed up the final decision, saying they'll move ahead with existing plans, as far as opening the doors and scheduling.

"As far as the 7-12, we can always make changes later if we need to, according to how many (students) are coming in," she said

Dietz and Packer agreed that many of the people who hadn't responded with a decision for their kids may be changing their mind in light of Bullock's directive, and Birkholz said several parents he's talked to are reconsidering the online learning option for their kids because of it.

They hoped to have a clearer picture by Wednesday, the cut off date for parents to let the school know if their school-age kids would be attending Lincoln Schools in person or online.


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