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Troy reconsiders mask policy

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 24, 2021 7:00 AM

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Community members who spoke at a Sept. 20 Troy school board were overwhelmingly against mask requirements. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)

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Community members who spoke at a Sept. 20 Troy school board were overwhelmingly against mask requirements. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)

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Jim Seifert, Lincoln County health board member, updates Troy School Board members on the severity of the recent coronavirus surge during a Sept. 20 meeting. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)

With coronavirus outbreaks straining schools throughout the state, Troy Public School Board members reopened a divisive discussion on when or if the district should require face coverings on campuses.

Superintendent Jacob Francom stressed that the Sept. 20 meeting, which drew at least a dozen parents and concerned community members, was no more than a forum on pandemic mitigation efforts. The board did not put any policies to a vote during the work session.

While Troy has seen a handful of students test positive for the virus since classrooms reopened in August, Francom said the district had made it through the past few weeks relatively unscathed. School officials in Eureka temporarily shuttered their elementary school earlier this month after more than 14 staff members were exposed to the virus. In Libby, at least 21 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 at the elementary school in early September.

Francom attributed much of Troy’s success to social distancing and aggressive disinfecting. At the elementary school, students remain isolated in cohorts throughout the day. While social distancing is harder for school officials to regulate at the high school because of large class sizes, students and staff regularly wash their hands and wipe down surfaces.

“It’s been working out really well for us,” said Francom.

Jennifer McCully, public health manager for Lincoln County, backed Troy’s social distancing measures, saying the efforts had gone a long way in mitigating the spread of the virus.

“That’s what is different from Troy and all the other school districts so we do appreciate that,” she said.

The coronavirus cases the district has seen so far stem from extracurriculars, sports and families, according to McCully.

Despite Troy’s success, board member Ben Valentine said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommended universal masking in schools. While board members had approved guidelines that made masks optional for students and staff in August, Valentine said the state Office of Public Instruction (OPI) had recommended in February that schools follow CDC guidance when it came to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

Since OPI’s statement, Francom said Gov. Greg Gianforte had issued an emergency rule urging school boards to take into account parental input when making decisions on mask requirements. After taking a poll, the district found that 40 percent of community members were in favor of masking. Teachers were split 52 percent against, 40 percent in favor and around 8 percent unsure. Among high school students, just 11 percent were in support of face coverings while 70 percent opposed them.

After speaking with other superintendents around the state, Francom said he recommended the school board establish a threshold for the number of coronavirus cases the district would have to hit before bringing masks back up for discussion.

“I think if we bring it up over and over again, it’s just going to create more confusion and frustration among board members, the community, staff members,” he said.

The discussion then drifted towards a more general referendum on the efficacy of masks and mandates.

Pointing to information disseminated by Montana School Board Association, board member Lori Damon worried that the district could be held accountable for not having a mask mandate in place.

“If there is no mask mandate in place, and someone gets sick, we could potentially be opening ourselves up for some liability,” she said.

Francom said the district could only be held liable if school officials were guilty of willful misconduct, gross negligence or bad faith. Since the district already had mitigation measures in place, Francom said this would be a hard accusation to level.

After reviewing statistics on infections, hospitalizations and deaths within the county, Jim Seifert, Troy’s representative to the county health board, asked school board members to consider masking students and staff to protect older members of the community.

“The biggest reason I can think of a mask mandate for kids is so they won’t take it home, give it to their parents and their parents won’t give it to their grandparents,” he said.

Seifert encouraged board members to increase vaccination rates among students and staff. Francom said school officials would welcome Seifert and others who wanted to give talks on vaccines in the district’s auditorium.

While board members have not discussed setting up vaccine clinics, Francom said the panel could offer vaccines at volleyball or football games.

Parent Christopher Koehn said that while he and others had supported masking children last year when little was known about the virus, he was more reluctant to follow a mandate this year now that more information had emerged. Koehn pointed to numbers that showed no one aged five to 25 had died of COVID-19 in the state.

He and other community members also raised concerns that masks, especially loosely fitting cloth or surgical masks, were ineffective at stopping the spread of the virus.

The CDC recommends face coverings with two or more layers of washable and breathable fabric. Masks should fit snugly against the side of the wearer’s face and completely cover their nose and mouth. It’s best for face coverings to have a nose wire to prevent air from circulating out of the top of the mask.

Some community members who spoke at the meeting brought up concerns about how masks might negatively affect student mental health. Clem Hollingsworth, the district’s therapist, said it was difficult to parse out what might cause declines in mental health. Many factors including general anxiety, depression and stress could put strain on students.

“Unless you’re set up to conduct a scientifically rigidly controlled experiment, there’s no way you can determine that,” he said.

One parent said that after coming back from a trip, she had her child wear a mask to school to prevent her from potentially bringing the virus into the community. With some of her friends unable to get the vaccine because of cancer diagnoses, the woman said she wanted to take as many precautions as she could against the virus.

Valentine said he also would like to see his child wearing a mask in schools regardless of whether there was a mandate in place.

Having reviewed the risks the virus posed to children, board member Terry Holmes said he couldn’t see why the panel would mandate masks. But he also recognized Valentine’s perspective and said if he had a young child he would be doing what he could to protect them.

“I want to commend you all for being polite and listening to others,” said board Chair Sylvia Maffit. “The whole purpose of this is that we could get together, that Troy people could get together and discuss and not get all hotheaded and angry.”