Arntzen’s leadership at anti-mask rally earns her an ‘F’

September 9, 2021 4:30 am

Children wearing protective face masks sit in classroom for the first day of classes of the new school year at the GuthsMuths elementary school during the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 10, 2020 in Berlin. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

When I was a freshman at Billings Senior High, John Miller, my typing instructor (yes, I learned keyboarding on a typewriter) booted me from the class for refusing to take off my Los Angeles Dodgers cap.

It probably also won’t surprise you that I was challenging authority then, claiming earnestly that the Dodgers were a religious belief to me. He and the dean of students did not agree, and if I wanted to keep progressing in school, rules needed to be followed. The cap had to go.

Hold that thought for a moment.

During the pandemic’s resurgency (as hard as it is to write those words), I sympathize with parents and residents for being distrustful of their leaders – we’re getting so many mixed messages. For months, conservative leaders poo-poohed vaccines, peddling unoriginal conspiracy theories about what they might contain, only to reverse course, as if they’d been helping to round people up to get them vaccinated all along. Surely, they can’t be shocked now that those same supporters aren’t rushing out to get jabbed with a needle.

But wait, there’s more: Along the way, they made a piece of cloth masking – so basic that it had been used in 1918 to ward off the last pandemic – a cudgel in a cultural war. You can’t imagine how bizarre it is to see a bunch of conservatives protesting their freedom of choice when it comes to their bodies without the slightest hint of irony.

Real leaders should try to calm roiled waters, especially when the health of virtually everyone is still at risk, including our children, who have little more than masks available to protect the youngest of them. Yet, there was Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen in Billings recently at a rally, protesting Billings Public Schools’ decision to require masks for everyone – teachers, administrators, students and parents.

Her message to the already agitated crowd was that the state’s own Constitution is being violated by requiring masks.

“Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of this state,” Arntzen told the crowd, as reported by KTVQ television.

Good thing Elsie is a teacher and not a lawyer.

Students have expectations and requirements – as they have always had, like wearing pants. Now, I don’t write that as snarkily as it may sound. But, schools throughout the country have been able to regulate the attire of students, and often do it with zeal when it comes to young females. And, what I learned as a freshman in high school the state’s top education official seems to forget: Schools have the power to regulate attire – even wearing a beloved baseball cap.

Surely masks on students are more important than cargo shorts or dress yoga pants, right?

Masks aren’t just a trivial piece of clothing like a baseball hat; they have the potential to save lives – young lives of kids who aren’t vaccinated. You’d think that a person charged with leading the schools would instead be telling parents she’s doing everything to keep schools open and would promise to help districts lift mandates only as soon as we can reasonably guarantee the safety of kids, some of whom likely have underlying medical conditions.

I find it odd that my kids’ schools can send home warnings of all sorts, telling parents not to send anything with peanuts in lunches for fear of nut allergies and no pets for show-and-tell because of allergies, and yet Arntzen chooses this for her political stand.

The coronavirus should at least be respected as being as powerful as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

For years, schools have required students to do a number of things – attend classes or risk truancy; follow certain dress codes, no matter how schoolmarmish; and get state-mandated vaccines so as not to spread deadly communicable diseases.

Arntzen has misconstrued the law: Providing a public education doesn’t come at any and all costs. For example, school districts occasionally expel dangerous or disruptive students because the school is not equipped nor should it accept the liabilities that come along with serious behavioral issues. The same is true for parents, families and students who are unwilling to follow the most basic if not annoying rules, that masks are required. Just like pants. Or showing up when the bell rings.

What upsets me most is not that the leader of the state’s education system has such a poor grasp on what providing public education means, or that she threw verbal red meat to a ravenous audience. Instead, she had the opportunity to do what distinguishes great teachers (and great leaders): She could have set the example by sympathizing with their frustration, but ultimately supporting the administrators who are simply trying to keep students safe.

She failed. Put in terms that even the former teacher could understand, she gets an F.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.