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Brown presses school leaders with public letter to follow mask mandate
Facing simmering unrest over her mask order in schools, Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday publicly challenged school leaders to follow the law.
In an open letter to school leaders that is equal parts chastisement and encouragement, Brown ensured that her underlying message is clear.
“Many of you have led or represented your school districts for years — long enough to know that districts must follow state law,” the letter says. “There is no ambiguity in Oregon’s mask requirements or the legal authority of Oregon OSHA to enforce those requirements.”
School boards and superintendents around the state have pushed back against the governor stepping into local decisions with her July mask requirement for all K-12 schools. They have issued letters and passed resolutions demanding the decision on masks be returned to local leaders. Some have hinted at passive resistance to mask rules with lax enforcement and broad exceptions.
Brown cuts deep at the opposition. She said her overriding goal is to keep students in school in person and masks are key to that. Brown called masks “an act of kindness” because they protect people around you.
“I have heard much about personal freedom when it comes to masks in school board meetings and on social media. I have not heard as much said about personal responsibility,” Brown wrote. “It is up to us to make clear-eyed decisions based on science and fact. Flouting mask requirements will put everything we have worked towards in the last year at risk.”
Many districts are getting the message. At the same time protests dominate the media, districts have quietly returned to using masks during summer programs and making plans for keeping masks on all students and staff. Even districts that have been vocally opposed are adjusting.
Culver Superintendent Stefanie Garber posted a public letter decrying the effect of masks on children and vowing the “district will do whatever it takes to retain the stance of local decision making and have masks be optional, honoring each family’s wishes for their own student.”
Culver School Board Chair Mike Knepp said masks are on the board’s Thursday agenda. He said that although as individuals some board members oppose mask usage, ultimately the board will follow the law.
Like a lot of school board members, he is now in a difficult spot. The governor has left school boards no choice, but he must take the brunt of public outrage. The fact the district successfully kept COVID-19 at bay last year by taking precautions but the rules keep changing, just makes it worse.
“You cannot but feel helpless, a low level of anxiety that is always there,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that we couldn’t get everybody to push in the same direction, it’s that the direction is constantly changing. It wears on a district and a person.”
Knepp joined the school board in 2015 because he felt the schools have a real value to his small Jefferson County community. He describes it as a civic duty, and he has stayed on after his two children graduated. He almost didn’t run this year because of last year’s divisiveness, and a part of him is regretting his choice to remain.
“The mask policy has taken away some of our ability to act as our own district,” he said.
Knepp is frustrated the mask issue is stealing focus from the district’s real concerns about helping students recover from last year’s missed learning.
“I would wish we are out of the medical business 100% and back in the education business,” he said.
Fiscal concerns weigh heavily on Knepp’s mind, and that is one reason he said the district can’t buck the mask mandate. With possible fines for not complying with the mask mandate ranging into thousands of dollars, the district can’t afford to take that chance, he said.
Knepp is equally concerned about his responsibilities to the staff in his district. Individual penalties for ignoring the mask mandate could include reprimands from the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission or even loss of license.
“The potential to damage someone’s future career, doesn’t seem like you should do that,” he said.
OSBA advocates strongly for local control by school districts, said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green, but districts and individuals could face consequences if they ignore the mask mandate.
Complaints can be brought by staff, students or the public and will be investigated by the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health or the TSPC.
In addition, adopting resolutions or voting against masks could endanger the limited protection the Legislature has offered against liability lawsuits if someone gets sick, Green said.
“Plain and simple — they are required to comply with the law, which in this case is the mandate from the governor,” he said. “They can disagree with it, but they must enforce it.”
School board leaders are facing a variety of public pressures. The Yamhill County Board of Commissioners recently voted to advocate for local control and to oppose mask mandates in schools.
Carson Benner, chair of the McMinnville School Board in Yamhill County, said such “grandstanding” is not helpful and he would desperately like to get back to focusing on the real issue of getting students in school safely.
“The mask issue is a lot of noise,” he said.
Still, he hears his community’s concerns.
“We’ve had some really passionate testimony. It’s heartfelt. Parents want to do what is best and safest for their children,” Benner said. “There are times when it’s not in line with the mandate, and we are sympathetic to that.”
Brown’s letter says the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant, which is striking more at children and driving up pressure on the statewide hospital system, has changed the calculus for COVID-19 preventative measures. Benner sees the reasoning.
“I think prior to the arrival of the delta variant, it would have been a decision that could be made locally,” he said. “When you are dealing with a pandemic, local decisions affect a broader community, and we don’t have the science or the data to make such an important decision locally. … We need a statewide solution, not a school-by-school solution.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA