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Face masks once again required in Laurel schools

Laurel Schools
Posted at 6:58 PM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 20:58:27-05

Face masks will once again be required in all Laurel schools.

The Laurel School Board voted 4-2 Thursday to revise its policy after the teachers and classified staff unions threatened legal action if masks weren't once again made mandatory, Superintendent Linda Filpula wrote in a letter to parents Friday.

The issue arose Feb. 12 when Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded Montana's statewide mask mandate, which left individual districts to determine their own masking policies in schools.

With no statewide requirement in place, Laurel schools reverted to the language within their own reopening plan, which stated that students and staff"may" wear masks in buildings and on buses- although they weren't required, according to an email from Filpula to parents earlier this month.

That announcement caused a stir among parents and teachers at a Feb. 17 board meeting, when the Laurel Unified Education Association said it would file an unfair labor practice grievance against the district if masks were not required in schools to protect the safety of teachers and staff from COVID-19.

Filpula wrote in her Friday letter that the mask requirement will remain in place through June 30, which is the length of the agreement between the district and the unions.

District officials said they recognize the community has strong feelings on face masks.

"The motion speaks for itself. The option for masks to be optional has always been the intent of the full board. The decision to fall in line with stated wording of the union agreement is to avoid costly litigation to the District. There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue and (I) hope both sides respect the position of the Board was not taken lightly. Our duty is to provide quality education to the students at Laurel School District," Board member Mike Creeden, who voted for the motion, said in a statement to Q2 News.

Read Filpula's full letter to parents below:

Dear Parents/Guardians and Community Members, On February 25, 2021, the Laurel Board of Trustees held a Special Board Meeting to discuss the District’s reopening plan and the recent direction provided by Governor Gianforte. The bulk of the meeting focused on the following:

Legal Discussion. Laurel Unified Education Association Certified and Classified Units informed District legal counsel that the unions take the position that mandatory masking is required by way of two memoranda of agreements entered into with the District in January 2021. The unions notified the District they will seek legal remedies if the District does not provide assurances that the District will return to mandatory masking for the remainder of the school year. School attorney Jeff Weldon will meet with this Board and will ask the Chair to close the meeting to discuss litigation strategy as provided for in Montana law.

As a result of the discussion, the Board took the following action: On the advice of counsel and as Governor Gianforte directed on February 12, 2021 to make reasonable efforts to follow best practices recommended by the CDC, I move to amend our Reopening Plan for the 2020-21 school year as follows. February 25, 2021 update: The Laurel School District hereby incorporates by reference the January 11, 2021, Memorandum of Agreement between the Laurel School District and the Laurel Unified Education Association. Any provisions of the School District’s Reopening/Operations Plan for the 2020-21 academic year inconsistent with that Memorandum of Agreement are hereby rescinded.

The MOA, as a binding contract, governs and requires universal masking per CDC guidelines. Effective immediately, we will return to universal masking for all students and staff and continue with previously established accommodations for students and staff.

The MOA expires on June 30, 2021, at which time Board Policy 1905 will apply and states “staff and students may wear a mask while present in any school building.”

We started the school year not knowing if we would be able to sustain onsite, all day, every day instruction. I want to congratulate everyone on having completed 120 school days!! This is a HUGE accomplishment for a district our size. As the infection rate lessens and vaccinations increase, we anticipate less quarantining of students and staff. We are moving in the right direction.

I greatly appreciate your support, patience, and perseverance. We are all tired and ready to be through this pandemic. As we complete the last 60 school days, let us finish the school year Strong and United!

Respectfully, Dr. Linda Filpula, Superintendent