BILLINGS — On Tuesday evening, hundreds of people gathered on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn in support of optional masking in the Billings Public Schools.
“We are not anti-vaccine. We are not anti-masks. We are standing up here saying we want everyone to be able to make the choice that is right for their family. We want everyone to be able to choose what they want to do," Luke Hudson told the crowd.
Hudson, along with Jenna Mckinney were two of the main speakers at the protest. The two are also administrators of a Facebook group that was started last year against limited fan attendance at school sporting events.
“We started that group because we believe strongly that it should be a parental right to make the healthcare decisions for your kids. It should be your right what kind of medical devices or anything, a face mask is put on your child. That is a right reserved for your children and for you to decide," Hudson said.
Since school started on Monday, Billings School District 2 staff and students have been required to wear masks. Superintendent Greg Upham reversed course from an earlier decision to keep them optional on Saturday, after a six-student COVID-19 outbreak on the Skyview High School Football team.
“That decision that came from one person affected 16,000 kids in 30-some different school buildings, and it’s wrong and it’s nonsensical," Mckinney said.
In an interview with Q2 News before the protest, Upham addressed some concerns.
“It’s the democratic process. As I shared yesterday, I think to work through this, we’re just going to have to listen to each other, have conversations and work through this. I think we live in a democracy and people are exercising their rights and I support that. I just know that we have to continue to work together. We’re in a pandemic and as long as we communicate and treat each other civilly, we can get through this," Upham said.
McKinney said she wasn't heard out by the school board. Hudson added emails to trustees from people in his group haven't been answered.
“This is parents rising up to make sure their voices are heard because the school board was not listening. Our superintendent is not listening, but I guarantee you there’s elected officials here who are listening," Mckinney said.
Hudson issued an ultimatum for Upham: Make masks optional by the end of the business day Friday, or a petition will be started to remove Upham from his seat as superintendent. Such a petition has no force of law, and Upham's employment is determined by the elected board of trustees.
The Montana state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and former Billings teacher of 23 years, Elsie Arntzen spoke to the crowd.
“I’m trying to understand. Out of one school district in the state where 17,000 children have public education with 1,300 teachers and leaders, custodians, secretaries that all support them, our challenge this first week of school, why is that? Why? It’s because schools are government and government needs to listen to we the people," Arntzen said.
Arntzen said denying students entry to school buildings violates Article 10 of the Montana Constitution, which outlines the goals and duties of public education. It states in part, "Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state."
“Equity, equality in an educational opportunity, it is demanded by our constitution. It is demanded. So when school doors shut because you are not wearing a face covering or a medical device or a mask, is that equality in education? No, and that’s why I’m here, I’m listening," Arntzen said.
When an interaction was recorded by a parent whose student was denied entry into Boulder Elementary on Monday, the administrator offered the student to be enrolled in remote learning.
Also on Tuesday, the Billings teachers union presidentissued a statement that said the union is taking "appropriate actions" in response to the mask requirement. Mckinney said the group backs the teachers.
“The teachers are told that they honor the agreement that they had with the local union that they would be (in) insubordination to the one superintendent who made the declaration. It’s wrong. It’s a misuse of government. It’s a misuse of position of power and we’re not going to stand for it," Mckinney said.