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Mask mandate puts school leaders in impossible situation
While the mask debate rages across Oregon, school leaders have little wiggle room. Trapped between parents’ demands and Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate, superintendents and school board members are clamoring for the return of local control.
A mere week after the Oregon Department of Education issued what was supposed to be the summer’s final “advisory” COVID-19 framework, Brown made masks mandatory in all K-12 public schools.
The more-infectious COVID-19 delta variant is spreading rapidly, pushing case levels to near-record levels. Students, required to attend school, face increased risks in classroom settings.
Schools were still finalizing their plans when they had to tear them up, and parents felt yanked around again. The protests against masks in schools are coordinated, loud and angry, crashing school board meetings and flooding email inboxes. At the same time, some teachers and parents are talking to administrators and peppering social media with encouragement for mask mandates.
Eric Milburn, president of the Oregon Small Schools Association, said the mask debate will drive out a lot of superintendents because of the displeasure of their school boards and parents or exhaustion with the constant conflicts.
The association, which represents more than 100 school districts, is working on communications with Brown and ODE to ask for local control of mask rules.
“We feel that we have been educated on this well enough that we in our own communities can make well-informed decisions with our local health authorities and school boards,” said Milburn, superintendent of the Central Curry School District on the south coast.
He said superintendents understand mask mandates will be necessary sometimes but those times should be identified locally.
Schools showed with their spring and summer programs that they can operate safely without disease transmission, Milburn said.
“The most important thing is to reiterate that as superintendents we deeply care about the children in our school districts,” he said. “Our frustration is we think we can safely mitigate risk, but that choice has been removed.”
Most safety precautions remain local decisions, but the mask issue fires up parents. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the OregonHealth Authority agree all staff and students should wear masks in school, regardless of vaccination. Many parents still vehemently disagree.
The Sweet Home School District, east of Corvallis, passed a resolution Monday night objecting to the mandate and asking for a return to local control. Other districts are considering similar resolutions, but they cannot legally ignore the mandate.
“School board members took an oath to uphold the law,” said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green.
The governor has the authority to impose mandates and school boards must follow them, Green said, but OSBA will continue to strongly advocate for local control.
The law, though, won’t shield school leaders from upset parents who are tired of being told what to do by far-away Salem.
“Most parents aren’t blaming the local districts, but they will take it out on the local districts,” said Coquille School District Superintendent Tim Sweeney.
He said parents in his southwestern district have told him they are going to send their kids to school without masks to see what he will do. Other superintendents are hearing the same thing.
“What happens if 300,000 kids come to school on the first day not wearing masks? Where do we go from there?” he asked.
The new framework advises schools to “refrain from implementing consequences that deny access to instruction” if students don’t wear masks. But schools can be fined $500 a day per violation for not enforcing mask rules.
Some school leaders are asking their communities to push back against the state mandate. KPIC compiled some representative Douglas County responses.
The Glide School Board, for instance, issued an open letter expressing its disappointment. It makes the case that small, rural schools have different challenges and opportunities than urban schools and should be able to make local decisions. They wrote: “This mandate and threats of civil penalties do not consider our districts’ successful experience in mitigating COVID-19 on our campuses over the last year.”
Coquille’s Sweeney said parents are feeling helpless while rules are being imposed on their children. Giving them a voice in the decision process is key, he said.
“If we don’t have them as allies, we can’t succeed,” Sweeney said.
Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty said he understands the governor and OHA are dealing with new dangers with the delta variant, but he thinks they could have explained it to the public better.
“They made the call, but they didn’t make the case,” he said.
He would like to see state officials visiting communities to share the data and get local feedback. He suggested school board members, as elected community representatives, should be tapped for a governor’s committee.
He also wants clearer policies and targets, such as the metrics of the past year. Brown has said officials will revaluate the mask mandate monthly but has not shared criteria.
School leaders face teachers who have been leery of in-person school since the start of the pandemic. While reiterating the importance of face-to-face learning, state and national teacher unions have called for safety measures to protect vulnerable students, teachers and families. Even with vaccinations, teachers could potentially infect students.
“As a teacher, I would feel terrible if I passed it on to them,” said Lauren Bleser, a fifth grade teacher in the Oregon Trail School District east of Portland.
Teacher unions have mostly been publicly quiet this summer, but members are still getting the word out. Bleser is part of the Facebook group Oregon for a Safe Return to Campus, which caters to teachers.
Bleser said the group encourages posting positive comments about mask mandates and other safety measures. She said the group is trying to give parents, school leaders and state officials another picture.
“I don’t want the angry voices to be all that they are hearing,” she said.
Coquille’s Sweeney said mask opposition is not universal.
“I have other parents saying, ‘You have to make them wear masks because we have to keep everyone safe. If one kid dies, that is tantamount to murder,’” he said.
Sweeney and many other superintendents are feeling the weight.
“What happens if we don’t follow the governor’s order and someone really gets sick and, God forbid, dies?” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA