At least 13 school districts named in mask complaints
Boxes of free disposable masks sit in the entryways of schools around Oregon. Superintendents report few problems getting students to wear masks. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Complaints about school mask mandate compliance started even before students arrived.
As of Tuesday, the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health division had received at least 18 school-related complaints.
Despite the protests of the summer, many superintendents report as school starts up that the overwhelming majority of students and parents are complying, just happy to finally be back with in-person, full-time classes.
Gov. Kate Brown announced July 29 that masks will be required in schools by all staff and students. The Oregon Department of Education clarified Aug. 17 in its “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework” that students could not be served in person if they weren’t wearing masks.
OSHA is the enforcement agency, and it received the first complaint Aug. 16.
The complaints in a spreadsheet shared by OSHA on Tuesday named 13 public school districts, three private schools and the Oregon Institute of Technology — most before the schools had even started classes. For instance, an Aug. 26 complaint said most of the Klamath County School District employees weren’t wearing masks in the building.
Superintendent Glen Szymoniak said the complaint likely stemmed from when staff were returning to the building after the summer break and weren’t into the swing of things.
“We cracked down, and everybody is doing good,” he said.
Klamath County started classes Tuesday, Sept. 7, and Szymoniak said the students are doing “awesome.”
“The kids came back. The masks were on. They sanitized hands,” he said. “We’re off to a good start.”
Szymoniak said he acknowledged the incident to OSHA and detailed the district’s response and doesn’t expect a follow-up investigation.
OSHA Public Information Officer Aaron Corvin said the agency cannot comment on specific cases but in most instances, if the employer addresses the alleged hazard or infraction, that can be the end of it.
Corvin said staff evaluate a complaint’s specificity and substance before contacting an employer. If the employer does not respond or responds inadequately, the agency can open an on-site inspection. Investigations vary according to circumstances but can take several weeks, Corvin said. Employers have 30 days from the time of the citation to appeal.
OSHA can levy fines, and it can also refer its findings to the Oregon Health Authority and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. OHA can levy fines, and the TSPC can go as far as revoking professional licenses. School leaders can also face legal liability concerns if they willfully ignore the mandate.
Schools account for relatively few of the complaints to OSHA, though. Corvin said that OSHA has fielded more than 24,000 COVID-19 complaints since the start of the pandemic and school districts accounted for less than 2% of them.
While the complaints against private schools allege school leaders are urging noncompliance, among public K-12 schools only a complaint against the Adrian School District on the Idaho border alleged a school policy of refusal. OSHA is investigating.
At a meeting Wednesday night to name Mark Redmond as interim superintendent, the school board approved a statement to send to parents confirming the district will follow the mask mandate.
“Although in our view Oregon’s pandemic steps have been consistently wrong, we believe that complying with the mask order is in the best interest of our students,” the statement says.
The rest of the public school district complaints allege a lack of compliance, mostly among staff, or lack of enforcement.
School districts remain caught in a difficult position, though. The Winston-Dillard School District south of Roseburg was named in a complaint over an outdoor school board meeting that became crowded without physical distancing. On Wednesday, The News-Review reported the school board moved a meeting online in response to threats stemming from requiring a student to wear a mask at school.
Many superintendents around the state report students, staff and parents are following mask rules without problems, even school leaders who worried there might be some rebellions.
Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney said parents told him during the summer they would send their children to school without masks, but when they started Tuesday, he saw no problems.
He said he visited every school that day and saw more than 500 students. He only saw one student not wearing a mask, and when prompted, she immediately went outside where it wasn’t required, he said.
Coquille, south of Coos Bay, was named in a complaint about its day care program for students up to age 9 the week before classes. Sweeney said he had not heard about the complaint and was puzzled because the children had mostly been outdoors.
OSHA has about 85 compliance officers to investigate all complaints. The Adrian case took nearly two weeks from the day of the complaint to someone arriving to investigate.
OSHA employs 34 consultants who can help school districts navigate COVID-19 requirements. OSBA also provides COVID-19 resources to help school leaders sort out policies.
A week after classes started, OSHA received a complaint that the Nyssa School District bus drivers and teachers were not wearing masks at the morning drop-offs.
Assistant Superintendent Ryan Hawkins said the district immediately went to its cameras to determine if there was a problem so it could take corrective action if needed. He said the district is aware of extra scrutiny because of the publicity surrounding its eastern Oregon neighbor Adrian.
He said the district reminds staff of expectations and lays down clear directives for students.
“They cannot come indoors unless they are wearing face coverings,” he said. “The thing is to keep reminding them.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
* This story has been updated.