First day of school brings thrills without feared mask rebellion
Central Elementary first grader Korbyn Neustel poses for the traditional first-day-of-school pictures on Monday in La Grande. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The mask mandate has overshadowed the school year’s start across much of Oregon, but it barely made a ripple during La Grande’s first day.
The sun was shining Monday. Children were laughing. Parents were beaming. Getting back to full-time, in-person learning — not wearing masks — was the overriding focus, and it mostly felt like a normal first day.
First grader Korbyn Neustel was among the earliest to arrive at Central Elementary with his parents. He had a cowboy hat and the Spider-Man mask his “meemaw” made. His excitement was infectious.
“This is my favorite kind of school, especially the American flag,” he said, proudly standing out front.
In-person classes for the first time in more than a year is nearly everyone’s favorite kind of school, but the mask debate is drowning out the good news in some districts.
On Monday night, the Adrian School Board fired its superintendent, with mask policy a deciding issue.
La Grande has been clear it will follow the mask mandate, but school boards and superintendents in some districts have threatened opposition. Parents have pulled their children from schools, and superintendents fear mass student refusals. School board meetings have become so heated that some members worry about their safety.
La Grande, a city of about 13,000 between Pendleton and Baker City on Interstate 84, is among the eastern Oregon communities such as Adrian that have vocally opposed mask mandates. The La Grande School Board faced an angry crowd in early August as it explained masks in school are a state requirement and its hands are tied. Unappeased, some residents rallied in front of City Hall on Saturday, calling for “medical freedom.”
Superintendent George Mendoza asked parents to keep the rancor away from classrooms, but he also asked for extra police patrols around schools Monday morning. Administrators worried they might face belligerent parents or stubborn children.
School leaders wondering what to expect when they open after Labor Day got a possible preview in La Grande, and it was better than anyone had hoped. Nearly everyone wore masks without prompting, and parents and children put them on without complaint when asked. First-day jitters and thrills ruled the day.
La Grande Middle School teacher Kim Freeman said she only had to remind students a few times to pull up their masks, no more consequential or frequent than reminders about other classroom rules.
“They are so pumped to be here they are not thinking about masks,” she said. “They are thinking about how to open their lockers.”
School Board Chair Robin Maille walked around the schools Monday morning. She said it was rewarding to see children at schools, the goal the board had long been working toward.
Although some parents dropping off children Monday said they opposed mask mandates, they also said they were willing to compromise for in-person teaching.
At least one parent pulled a child out over the mask rule Monday, and Mendoza said several others quit over the weekend. Overall, building administrators think their most strident anti-mask families have quit the district.
Some parents feel just as strongly about wearing masks.
Central Elementary PTO President Jess Hagedorn said she probably would have kept her children home if the school had not required masks.
She said the district’s listening and clear communication had been key in quieting parents’ opposition enough that it wouldn’t affect students’ in-person learning.
“It diffused families a bit knowing there would be a line drawn,” she said.
Fourth grader Kattianne Schwartzenhauer said she was just excited to be able to return to her old school. Last year, she was homeschooled.
Mendoza said a lot of parents made the same decision. District enrollment numbers fell from about 2,350 in 2019 to about 2,190 in 2020 but have bounced back to about 2,250 this year, Mendoza said.
School leaders most feared problems at La Grande High School. On Monday, just the freshmen came in for orientation. Masking was near 100%, with a few below the noses. One girl sitting in the back row of the bleachers during an assembly had it below her chin. When a staff member motioned to her, she pulled it up and kept it mostly in place the whole time.
On Tuesday when the rest of the high school students started, dozens milled around outside the three entrances in the crisp morning air. About a quarter had masks on, but nearly all either pulled up their masks or put on one of the offered disposable masks as they crowded through the doors. A few slipped by watchful staff without masks, but at least one soon returned to get a mask. He offered no complaint.
Assistant Principal Eric Freeman said the school would communicate more with parents and students to encourage physical distancing outside before school starts.
Sophomore Jakub Reimer doesn’t like the masks, but he is glad to be back in school.
“It’s a little weird, but you got to do what you got to do to get an education,” he said.
Sisters Tearinee Hadley, sophomore, and Tiffany, junior, were more nervous about whether their teachers and other students would be nice than they were about masks.
“The masks are fine,” said Tiffany. “You get used to it.”
The first day went smoothly, but educators see trouble ahead.
For starters, the COVID-19 spike is still raging, threatening to shut schools down.
La Grande district nurse Amy Pennington reported that one staff member and 12 students couldn’t start the first day because they had COVID-19. Another three staff members and 27 students are quarantined for at least 10 days because of COVID-19 contacts or symptoms.
Mendoza said the state’s clear mask rules made the schools’ response simpler, if not easier. He said relationships with students, staff and parents have been damaged.
Teachers said they expect a honeymoon period while students are still excited to be in school but resistance to grow if the mask mandate drags on.
Sophomore Gisa Dixon thinks masks are unnecessary for healthy people. He said he is not bucking the mask rule “for now” but his compliance isn’t unlimited.
“Once they are off, they are staying off,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA