HELENA — The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) issued an emergency rule on Tuesday addressing school masking mandates and parent choice.
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.
At this time it is unclear as to the impact the new rule will have on school districts due to the "should" language of the rule. We have reached out for legal interpretation of the rule and will update the article once we know more.
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.
“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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status due to the high level of spread of the delta variant across the country. The CDC’s reasoning is due to the congregate setting schools provide, it is easier for the virus to spread ultimately putting more homes at risk for direct exposure.
After signing the emergency rule, DPHHS 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 send children home for remote learning.