Maskless in Billings: School district gives up on requirement, but it feels like fatigue

January 6, 2022 4:14 am

Face masks worn to prevent COVID (Photo by via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Well 2022, you’re lookin’ a lot like 2021 to me.

Protests have been planned for capitol buildings on Jan. 6, and we’re continuing a fight over the most common-sense, inoffensive measures possible: Getting a vaccine and wearing a mask.

I guess because everything has to be political, that means every issue will become a matter of winners and losers, and today, the common good, science and common sense have lost. At least in Billings.

The Billings Public Schools, under threat of a lawsuit, has rolled back masking mandates for students in the largest public school district in the state. Masks will be optional for most kids in most places. Remember that time when we were so interested and excited to send our kids back to school we would have bubble wrapped them? Remember that?

Now, administrators, teachers and school board members are dealing with a “long-haulers” problem of their own – utter fatigue.

In a letter to parents and the community, Billings Public School District Superintendent Greg Upham said it’s not the threat of a temporary restraining order that has caused the change – and I believe him. Similar threats in Missoula and Bozeman have been filed, and even for all of its creative legislation in 2021, the Legislature has largely left the issue up to school districts in an unexpected fit of common sense when they doled out local control to local school boards.

Instead, it’s clear in the letter and from the stories that the fatigue and weariness of the situation has dampened and distracted from the important task of teaching children. Most teachers and administrators can recite a story about a COVID-19 conflict with a parent.

From a disappointingly pragmatic perspective, Upham’s wager is likely correct, even if unspoken: Most parents who wanted their kids vaccinated have probably done so. The hope of a more robust response to pediatric vaccines is as predictable as COVID transforming itself from a pandemic to just being endemic.

Meanwhile, parents in the district have become numb to the flood of emails that notify us that one of our kids may have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. In one week, I received nearly a dozen among our three kids.

Our kids are sent to school with the masks, and who knows what happens after? Some of the kids in fourth grade apparently use the masks as conversational starting points about Trump being cheated out of the election, demonstrating easily how deeply the politics has seeped far, far into our daily lives. Back in my day, we just griped about the school’s squarish spackle that passed for pizza, and we guessed how old our gym teacher was.

Yet I cannot help but feel a profound sense of loss and disappointment. This feels like just giving in, even though the science tells us that masks, vaccines and social distancing help. When we give up on even trying to protect our children and guarding them from possible hospitalization, we haven’t just failed now – we’ve failed our future generations who can hopefully survive the disease and somewhere along the way find a new way to talk about the importance of the common good.

This exercise in masklessness is also instructive in other parts of our lives. Want to know why we can’t even bring up race in schools without the threat of punishment? Well, if we can’t even agree on the science of a pandemic, it makes sense that conversations about something more nuanced would be beyond our reach. Want to know why guns in school has little chance of being solved? Well, if asking for a masking is the prelude to a restraining order, good luck with guns.

But the truth is: We value guns more than our children’s health. And we apparently will die by our right not to be disturbed with uncomfortable truths or ideas rather than look for a more just way to treat those who have been marginalized.

The resignation of exhausted public officials is understandable. What’s harder to figure is the disregard for others that has become the hallmark of this present generation and our pandemic.

When our children look at this moment in time as adults, will they talk about classmates who died? And why is that acceptable to us? When they look back, won’t they wonder why we did not take better care of them — we, who are charged with safeguarding them? Will they appreciate that personal freedom was literally protected at all costs, even though it has meant hundreds of thousands of deaths?

Sadly, as everyone continues to wage lawsuits and cultural wars over a simple cloth covering, it is becoming increasingly obvious — and equally terrifying — that masks may be the least of our problems.

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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.