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Whitefish, Columbia Falls schools announce opposite mask policies

by LYNNETTE HINTZE and CHRIS PETERSON
| August 17, 2021 7:00 AM

The two biggest school districts in the North Valley will take opposite approaches to mask requirements when the school year starts in a couple weeks.

Following a contentious, four-hour meeting Thursday night, the Whitefish School Board voted to require face coverings for students, staff and visitors in kindergarten through sixth grade while indoors, and is recommending masks for students, staff and visitors in seventh through twelfth grades, Superintendent Dave Means said in an email to families and school staff on Friday.

The Columbia Falls School District, meanwhile, will make masks optional for students as the new school year begins, Superintendent Dave Wick said in a recent letter to parents.

The Columbia Falls School Board voted to make masks optional in June. Previously, they were mandatory for students and staff to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The district still will offer remote learning for students who choose not to go to school in person.

Masks also will be optional — but strongly encouraged — at Kalispell Public Schools, following a decision by that district's board earlier this week.

The Whitefish School Board will reconsider the mask guidelines when vaccines become available for children younger than 12, or by the Oct. 12 board meeting, Means said.

Whitefish schools will require masks on public transportation, such as school and activity buses, as required by federal law.

"If face coverings are optional and the number of active COVID-19 cases in Flathead County increase to the point of threatening school closures, the Board of Trustees authorizes the superintendent to implement a requirement for face coverings to be worn in identified district buildings until such time as the Board of Trustees can adopt an applicable district requirement," Means said in his email.

THE WHITEFISH School District's COVID-19 guidelines and procedures prioritize in-person learning and also have a layered approach to mitigation strategies within school buildings.

"We recognize how challenging the last 17 months have been during this global pandemic," Means said. "While opinions certainly vary on mitigation strategies, we are all ultimately after the same goal — keep our kids healthy and learning together in our schools. We will continue to strive to make decisions that are in the best interest of the health and safety of our district."

Matt Smith, a parent in the Whitefish district, criticized the board's decision in a letter to Means and the board, writing: "It was very clear through the words of the board when they stated 63% of parents and teachers voted to have masks be optional, how the large majority of our community stands on this topic.

"You are a public school board, not a private school board and your deliberations should reflect such," Smith asserted in his letter. "We are rallying, not only to have our voices heard regarding the clear disregard for the popular opinion and over reaching mandate, but we are rallying as a community that is tired of watching the policies being pushed upon our community by like-minded individuals as yourselves."

THE COLUMBIA Falls School District is in what's known as Phase III, which makes the use of masks optional. The district will not screen students coming into schools.

"In Phase III, there are several elements that continue as precautions for the spread of disease, including extra sanitation, social distancing, frequent hand washing, and students and staff staying home when sick and symptomatic. In this phase, mask wearing is up to the individual and we will not be screening students every day at the door," Superintendent Wick said in his letter.

However, there will still be quarantine requirements for infected people who aren't vaccinated.

"We will continue, as required, with contact tracing and quarantining anyone within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more of a confirmed case," Wick said. "Students and faculty who have been vaccinated will not need to quarantine if they are exposed and asymptomatic. County health will be verifying vaccine status for those who are seeking to avoid quarantine."