EDITORIAL: Governor should let Malheur County superintendents hold the reins

School superintendents around Malheur County are trusted with enormous responsibilities. They are trusted by their communities, and Gov. Kate Brown should trust them as well. She should reverse course and drop her directive from Salem regarding face masks.

Covid has made people cranky. And the surge going on now is testing civility and patience around Malheur County and across the state. The science is clear – the Delta variant of the coronavirus is stalking victims at a fast clip. The risk ahead is considerable – to personal health and to community wellbeing.

But the governor and her team have needlessly complicated the fight. She is ordering everyone in schools to wear masks – teachers, administrators and students. This is no suggestion. She made clear this wasn’t debatable – obey or be punished.

The directive surprised those in the education community. It angered some, and it’s set some local parents in Malheur County to howling.

Brown’s order is surprising because it shifts course. Not more than a month ago, decisions related to Covid were handed back to school districts. The return to local hands was met with relief by most school executives.

Now, Brown is going back on her word. And it’s not because she has any evidence school officials had bungled the authority she had returned to them. She notes that kids under 12 aren’t vaccinated, and that they have to go into school buildings – where the virus might lurk. Brown doesn’t make the case that school superintendents and principals are ignorant of those facts.

So, the justification for her order seems thin. And it only adds to growing confusion about Covid protocols. Federal and state authorities offer a range from “recommended” actions to “mandates.” Brown, for instance, isn’t making kids wear masks for sports. Or for extracurricular school activities. Wearing masks in those circumstances, the state says, is a matter for local choice. And if parents violate the mask rule, what should happen? Well, that is a local decision, the governor’s team said.

School leaders, it seems, can be trusted to make some decisions about the pandemic but not all.

The case is stronger that all decisions about how local schools react to Covid should rest with school boards and superintendents.

Consider what we trust them with already. Each year, parents send roughly 5,000 kids off to schools around Malheur County, trusting they will be safe. Each year, taxpayers deliver millions of their dollars to school districts, trusting they will use the money wisely. Each year, the state trusts superintendents and principals to hire the best teachers for classrooms.

Superintendents and school board members accept that responsibility. And with responsibility comes accountability. School board members can be recalled. Superintendents can be fired. And local voters are none to reluctant to pursue either step if they feel their kids or their schools are being mismanaged.

And that’s how it should be in Malheur County and in every county in Oregon. Superintendents pledge to safeguard their schools – students and staff alike. We can’t imagine Alisha McBride in Vale or Nikki Albisu in Ontario blindly drawing kids to school if there was evidence that large numbers were bringing Covid with them – or taking it home. They risk their reputations and their livelihoods if they preside over a Covid crisis they could have mitigated.

But let’s say some superintendent went off the rails and presided over a pandemic stew. Kids get seriously sick and even hospitalized. Teachers call in sick, infected with Covid and needing care or quarantine. We doubt parents and community leaders would shrug their shoulders.

Besides that, the governor and her team have tools to deal with any school leader who deliberately puts kids in harm’s way. State licenses can put be in jeopardy. There are provisions for acting against gross neglect of duty. And there are financial sanctions likely through state funding.

The governor is right to be concerned about Oregon’s children. The medical data about the Delta variant is young and evolving. But the governor squanders focus on those concerns by stirring up a political – not medical – debate about who’s in charge of schools. As long as superintendents are willing to accept the responsibility and the accountability for handling the pandemic, they should get all the support they need. Let them keep their eyes on the school houses instead of the statehouse. – LZ