Lower Student COVID Rate in Mask Optional Schools, Billings Mask Lawsuit, State Data Shows
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UPDATED (1/6/2022): Post updated to include letter from Billings teachers union president Douglas Robison discouraging educators from contributing statements to the lawsuit regarding the negative effects of masks on students.
Parents in Billings and the non-profit Stand Up Montana filed their 200-page mask lawsuit against Billings Public Schools and Elysian Schools at the end of December. A hearing date for a preliminary injunction against forced-masking has been set for January 28th, at 9:00am with Judge Jessica Fehr. The injunction would halt the forced masking of children in these public school districts.
In the brief, parents provide data on mask efficacy and affidavits from three Billing area school teachers who testify to the harm that masks cause students. There are also affidavits from a Billings-area infectious diseases physician and a biostatistician discussing mask efficacy and statistically low COVID risk for children.
One teacher, Tanya Watt, a 2nd grade teacher at Billings Public Schools, shared that she had not spoken out against the district mask policies for fear of “retribution or backlash.”
“I have been a teacher for 23 years, 16 of those in title schools in SD2,” Watt wrote. “I love my job, my students and my school. But, I also feel like I need to stand up for my students, parents and myself in this situation. I have been debating sending this email for a long time, but haven’t for fear of retribution or backlash. I can’t continue to stand by any longer.”
In her affidavit, a letter addressed to school board members and Billing Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham, Watt explained that they were dividing the community over the forced masking policy. She also said the policy was creating a hostile work environment and that the school was at risk of losing staff.
“This mask mandate is dividing our community and creating hostile work environments at our schools,” she wrote. “You have created an environment of anger, fear, anxiety and disgruntled employees. I am so thankful for the school I work at that we have a strong “family”, but I know of several schools where this is not the case. Please take this into consideration before you lose valuable employees who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic to do what is best, and are just worn out.”
Watts noted that students are suffering from head aches, skin rashes, and nose bleeds while being forced to wear a mask all day. She also mentioned that the Yellowstone County Health Officer was not comparing cases between schools who forced masking and schools that made it optional. She said that the schools where masking is optional, positive COVID cases are actually lower.
“These young kids are being forced to wear a mask all day, endure headaches, skin rashes, nose bleeds,” Watts wrote. “This is quite a burden to put on these children! They are taking the brunt of this pandemic and it is, quite honestly, just wrong! I have watched several of your board meetings with all of the numbers and data shown by [Yellowstone County Health Officer] Mr. [John] Felton. However, not once, has it been shown that these schools with mandated mask policies are doing any better than schools with an optional policy.”
In the suit, parents provided COVID case data collected from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). State data shows that in Yellowstone County mask optional schools have lower case rates than schools that force masks. The data tracks cases at 66 schools in Yellowstone County over a three month period. Schools that forced masking had a COVID positivity rate of 4.25% while mask-optional schools had a 3.42% positivity rate.
DPHHS data indicates that forced masking at schools has no effect on reducing the spread of COVID-19.
One parent, Luke Hudson, who is also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has been collecting and graphing state COVID case data for other parents and for the lawsuit.
Hudson setup a website called MontanaStatistics.com where he uses DPHHS data to provide visualizations not available in the state’s online COVID tracker. He has collected state data to graph school COVID case rates in Yellowstone County, including between schools with different masking policies, in addition to graphs of hospital capacity in the Billings area and statewide.
A preliminary injunction requesting a halt to forced masking filed against Missoula County Schools on behalf of Missoula parents was rejected by Judge Jason Marks in October of 2021. Missoula schools attorney Elizabeth Kaleva argued that emergency injunctions are granted to preserve the status quo and that since parents in Missoula County did not legally challenge the school mask policy in 2020, masking became the uncontested status quo moving forward. Judge Marks agreed.
Hudson said that he is optimistic about the hearing on the 28th. “I am eternally optimistic about our case,” Hudson said. “We have a few things now that Missoula and Bozeman didn’t have. We have heard from judges in Missoula and Bozeman so we have the benefit of hearing their defense of masks.”
Hudson shared that the teacher affidavits and local data on masks will help bolster the Yellowstone County lawsuit. “We have built our case around the fact that masks are an educational harm to schools,” Hudson said.
“We have several teacher affidavits testifying of the harms of masks. We have an affidavit from an infectious disease doctor testifying that masks are not effective in schools. We have this data showing masks are not the least restrictive means of mitigation since other schools are open in person with optional masking. We have been fighting the district in Billings since last February so they can’t claim status quo against us.”
After publishing this story, Billings teachers union President Douglas Robison wrote to 1,100 educator members on January 6th, warning them not to share statements regarding the negative impacts of masking on students.
“I am writing to discourage you from speaking out against your employer in this capacity. While they are promising anonymity, I can’t confirm that that will happen,” Robison wrote. “Ultimately it is your decision to participate, but in my professional opinion and under the advice of others I would discourage you from participating.”
Read the lawsuit here.Billings-Lawsuit-Brief_compressed
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