Superintendent Arntzen recommends rescinding mask mandate for remainder of school year

Public schools official said recommendation at odds with federal requirement for $380M relief funds

By: - May 19, 2021 7:06 pm

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen (Provided by the Office of Public Instruction)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen recommended in a memo Wednesday that school districts rescind mask mandates not only for the upcoming academic year but for the remainder of the current school year.

“In light of the changes occurring across the state, as we move into the 2021-2022 school year, the OPI (Office of Public Instruction) strongly recommends that school districts across Montana rescind, or allow to expire, any existing face covering mandates, and develop policies that make the wearing of face masks and other coverings voluntary, and a matter of family choice,” Republican Arntzen said in the memo. “Further, the OPI supports schools making the decision to remove those mandates for the remainder of the present school year, as well as for any summer instruction programs.”

The recommendation comes just a couple of weeks before many schools wrap up the year. Public schools across Montana have varied in their responses to the coronavirus pandemic and mask requirements, but Arntzen’s memo notes Montana has continued to reopen since February.

However, Lance Melton, head of the Montana School Boards Association, said the guidance from the state superintendent appears to put Montana public schools at odds with a federal requirement from the Biden administration for coronavirus relief funds.

Montana is set to receive $382 million in ESSER III, or Elementary and Secondary School Relief funds for public schools. The Montana Legislature adopted a plan for allocating it.

“One of the surprising features of that (federal) rule that was not in the act itself is this requirement that each school district establish and submit a local plan for how they’re going to reopen,” Melton said.

(He noted ESSER I was distributed before the 2021 Montana Legislature, and ESSER II, out of the Trump administration, did not have the same requirement.)

The federal rule notes school districts must submit plans for how they’ll use the money. The federal registry said those plans must include how the district will use funds “to implement prevention and mitigation strategies that are, to the greatest extent practicable, consistent with the most recent CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance on reopening schools.”

The CDC’s current recommendations for K-12 include “consistent use of prevention strategies, including universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.”

The most recent update from the CDC for K-12 is dated May 15. It notes the agency “will update its guidance for schools in the coming weeks. Updated guidance can inform school planning for the 2021-2022 academic year.”

In Montana, an estimated 372,806 people had been full vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the state count. This year, the number of COVID-19 cases have remained low and relatively flat compared to a spike in the fall.

Late Wednesday afternoon, OPI did not immediately respond to a question about why the superintendent felt it was important to recommend the mask mandate be rescinded this school year or whether she had any concerns the state could be putting federal relief funds at risk. However, OPI spokesperson Christopher Averill said Arntzen trusts families to make decisions about their children’s health.

“She also trusts our school superintendents and educators to keep our children safe in the classroom,” Averill said in an email. “It is important that, as Montana schools prepare for the 2021-2022 school year, they consider and examine the impact that mask requirements have had on the ability of our children to learn properly, and work to provide as much normalcy in the classroom as possible. At the end of the day, this remains a local control issue, and the OPI is happy to assist our schools as they evaluate their policies prior to the new school year.”

Melton said there are many good reasons for local control, and Montana schools aren’t like schools in Los Angeles, for instance. But he said federal officials may not see all the nuances evident to Montanans.

“This gets into high political theater because unfortunately, all of these things are influenced by the administration that passed them,” he said.

Melton said the processes for overseeing the expenditure of federal funds are complex, and the recommendation from the superintendent complicates matters: “She’s recommending that districts do things that are going to make them have some explaining to do to her staff when they want their ESSER funds.”

He also said the logistics of managing a mask mandate rescission at the end of a school year are difficult. Just for starters, he said officials need to notice a public meeting and manage a contentious issue even as they steer toward final grades and graduation ceremonies.

In her memo, Arntzen cited the CDC in quoting Gov. Greg Gianforte. She wrote that in his own executive order on Feb. 12 that let a mask mandate expire, the governor “rightfully noted that ‘access to school is essential to the (developmental), social, mental, and educational needs of schoolage children.’ Further, he said that ‘schools should make reasonable efforts to follow school guidelines and best practices recommended by the CDC and the Montana Office of Public Instruction.'”

Arntzen also said in her memo that Montana has proven it can keep children safe and keep them learning, and she urged a return to “normal.”

We … cannot perpetuate the notion that masks will be a permanent feature in our states classrooms. I encourage you to evaluate your policies and work toward removing masks wherever possible.

“It is important that our children have as normal a school experience as possible — as soon as possible.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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