Once again, the masking requirement in Billings Public Schools was the focus of the public comment portion of Monday's Billings Public Schools Board of Trustees monthly meeting.
Most of the comments were in support of the masking policy, including those delivered by four medical professionals who work for the Billings Clinic.
At the end of the meeting ten of the people who commented spoke out against the policy. Those people offered a range of reasons, including their belief that COVID-19 does not pose a serious risk to children and that masks are bad for children.
One woman in criticizing the masking requirement compared the school board to Adolf Hitler.
The Billings Clinic employees who spoke were pediatrician Dr. Kathryn Lysinger, health care epidemiologist Dr. Neil Ku, pediatric psychiatric physician Dr. Adrienne Coopey, and Nancy Iversen, the Billings Clinic's director of patient safety and infection control.
The Billings Clinic is one of several local health care organizations that have offered support of the masking requirement, including RiverStone Health, St. Vincent Healthcare, and St. John's United.
Ku reflected on a walk he took Monday through the ICU and COVID ward at the Billings Clinic. "I couldn't avoid thinking that in each of those rooms there was someone's mother, father, daughter or son," Ku said. "This morning the official count of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Yellowstone County was 101."
Lysinger, the pediatrician, said she has two children in Billings Public Schools and said she was grateful for the masking requirement. She urged the district to continue with the practice.
"Children do spread COVID-19, not only amongst other children, but also to more vulnerable family members at home. I've personally seen children spread disease to high risk pregnant mothers, grandparents and infant siblings," Lysinger said. "Many children have relatively minor symptoms with infection. Unfortunately this is not the case for all children. In my clinic I have seen children suffering from long COVID symptoms months after infection. We have also seen the rare but severe multi-system-inflammatory syndrome in children here in Billings. Nationally over 400 children have died from COVID-19 and it is now one of the top 10 causes of death in adolescents in this country."
Coopey, the pediatric physician, directly addressed the effect of masks on the mental health of children. Using pseudonyms, she described two children who have received inpatient psychiatric care in Billings during the pandemic. One, according to Coopey, was being treated for a suicide attempt after having been "orphaned" by COVID-19.
"She had lost hope," Coopey said. "You see, she had COVID herself and recovered quite well. But her mother and grandmother had not. This was before vaccination. Both her mother and grandmother died."
Another child she described was admitted for depression with suicidal thoughts. Coopey said he had been quarantined after COVID-19 infection and was then quarantined several more times for exposure at school, which caused him to fall so far behind that school and life had become overwhelming. She ended her comments by saying that wearing masks keeps kids in schools, which she called "the safest place for many."
"I wish these stories were exceptions to the rule, but I've heard them over and over," she said. "On the other hand I have not cared for a single child driven to suicide by wearing a mask."
Iversen noted that last week 15 patients from Yellowstone County died of COVID-19 infection. She said last weekend a 24-year-old person from the community and a person in their early 30s both died of COVID-19.
"Today we have two children hospitalized, a baby just over six months old and a teenager fighting COVID-19 infection," Iversen said. "Some of the patients are vaccinated. The majority are not. Masking is needed to protect people from the virus. The babies in our community, those who are immunocompromised, those who have cancer, those who have received an organ transplant and cannot get a vaccine yet or cannot mount an antibody response to the vaccine."
Board Chair Greta Besch Moen had announced earlier in the meeting that public comment could be delivered two ways Monday night. Since the meeting was hosted on Zoom and also live-streamed on Facebook, commenters had the option to read their comments or submit comments that would then be read aloud by Craig Van Nice, the board's clerk.
One comment read by Van Nice was attributed to Ken Ard, which was critical of the mask requirement. Ard accused Superintendent Greg Upham of having taken "shady" actions and "borderline breaking the law."
"The Billings area and Montana news and some medical professionals and hospitals have done nothing but twist the truth and data to promote extreme fear and paranoia in the community and this board," Ard said. "People have lost their heads and let go of all common sense and freedoms. You, as a board share in this blame. You are enabling the crazies and making Billings more divisive."