DPHHS: Parents should make mask decisions for children

By 
Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Montana state officials issued an emergency rule Tuesday urging parents be the final decision maker regarding mask usage in schools.

Gov. Greg Gianforte hailed the ruling by Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS) Director Adam Meier as recognizing the “fundamental rights of parents.”

“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,” Gianforte said.

“Unfortunately, mandating masks for students is based on inconclusive research that fails to prove masks’ effectiveness in reducing the incidence of COVID-19 in the classroom. Simply put, our children shouldn’t be subject to arbitrary mask mandates when schools can’t follow the science because there’s a lack of meaningful, reliable research. On the other hand, some scientific studies we’ve carefully reviewed undoubtedly reveal the adverse impacts of masking on a child’s health, wellbeing, and development,” he added. “This emergency rule ultimately directs schools to recognize the fundamental rights of parents, and because each child is unique and may face unique challenges, this rule urges schools to empower parents to do what’s best for their children.”

The rule indicates local school boards should consider parental concerns on wearing masks and allow opt-outs for physical, mental, emotional, psychosocial health, developmental needs, religious belief or moral conviction.

The rule was issued in the midst of explosive growth in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide over the past few weeks, as students are just beginning to return to school.

Gianforte said last week he will not impose mask or vaccination mandates in Montana, urging residents to get vaccinated to combat the latest COVID-19 surge. Vaccines are not currently authorized for use in children under age 12, and vaccination rates have stalled across the state. Montana is the only state in the nation that bans vaccination requirements as well.

The state added 3,603 new cases and 32 deaths to its total in the past week; daily case counts are on the rise, ranging from 600 to almost 900 new per day. As of Tuesday, there were 127,277 cases and 1,800 deaths recorded in Montana since the start of the pandemic.

COVID-19 outbreaks are growing in several lower-vaccination counties, specifically Flathead (42% vaccinated), Yellowstone (49%) and Cascade (46%) counties. All three increased their vaccination percentages by one point over last week. As of Tuesday, Yellowstone County had 892 active cases, Flathead had 837 active cases, and Cascade had 805 active cases.

Hospitalizations statewide continue to increase weekly, with hospitals in Chouteau, Fallon, Flathead and Yellowstone counties reporting over 90% of their beds filled.

In Beaverhead County, Barrett Hospital was 39% full, with three COVID-19 beds and four non-COVID beds filled as of Aug. 23, according to the weekly state hospital capacity report. The report had not been updated as of press time Tuesday.

Beaverhead County saw a few new COVID-19 cases and an uptick in the number of fullyvaccinated individuals in the past week. The county added five new cases to its overall COVID-19 tally, ending with 13 Su active M cases T W and Th 981 total F Sa cases as of Tuesday. The new cases were in people in their 20s, 50s, 60s and 80s.

The county reached 52% of its eligible residents vaccinated, which is higher than the state average (50%) but below the nation as a whole (52.3%). Beaverhead County is 12th from the top of Montana counties in the percentage of vaccinated residents. The highest age group for vaccinations is those over age 80 (91%), followed by those in the 70-79 (80%) age groups in the county (as of Aug. 15). The lowest vaccination rates in the county are for those ages 18-29 (27%), and the next lowest are those ages 12-17 (30%). The percentage of vaccinated individuals in the 12-17 age range grew considerably since the previous county vaccination breakdown posted by the state of Montana.

There are more than 38.8 million COVID cases and over 636,000 deaths counted nationwide since the start of the pandemic, according to the U.S. CDC.