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Billings teachers union promises response to district mask mandate

Posted at 9:23 PM, Aug 24, 2021

The Billings teachers' union is pursuing "appropriate actions" in response to Superintendent Greg Upham's mask mandate and its enforcement, including the suspension of three staff members.

A memo from Billings Education Association President Doug Robison obtained by Q2 News Tuesday did not outline the specifics of the response but called a memo sent by Upham "inappropriate and insulting" and vowed to ensure members' voices are heard. In Upham's memo, he said staff members who refused to comply would face discipline.

The conflict began last week when the union rejected Upham's request to require masks at all K-8 school buildings, where students under age 12 who are ineligible for vaccines attend.

The union cited an agreement signed this summer that made masks optional, and union leaders continue to encourage their use.

After a COVID-19 outbreak among Billings Skyview's football team, Upham announced Saturday he was imposing a mask mandate anyway districtwide. He said district attorneys believed his mask order supersedes the agreement signed by the union.

Here's the union's full response:

"In response to the Superintendent and the School Board’s pattern of indifference to the collective bargaining rights of the Billings Education Association (BEA), the BEA Board of Directors has decided to pursue the appropriate actions to ensure our members’ voices are heard. Our issue lies with the Superintendent’s disregard of teachers’ voices and our contractual language. Montanans honor their word, and the Superintendent and School Board Trustees have failed to do so by continually violating signed agreements. Additionally, the severity of the memo sent to staff by Superintendent Upham was inappropriate and insulting, especially following years of collaboration and concessions made by the BEA.

"We, as professional educators, acknowledge the need to protect our immunocompromised members, students, and community. We have always encouraged members to mask. Over the past year and a half, we have done everything in our power to keep schools safe and open, including wearing masks for the entire 2020-21 school year. For the last two school years, we have started the year without a signed contract, which has led to immense anxiety and uncertainty; however, in the best interest of students, we put this anxiety and uncertainty aside to show up for work and do what we do best--teach.

"Our end goal is not to agitate or infuriate. We want to acknowledge the difficult positions we are all in. We want to serve our community, we want to teach our students, and we want to have a collaborative relationship with the district through the collective bargaining process. We are asking for support from our community, our colleagues, and the School Board in order to pursue our collective goals."