Students, staff and legislators react to mask mandate in schools

Cloth face masks. (The Enterprise/File photo)

ONTARIO – State legislators representing Malheur County are pushing back on the state’s mandate that everyone in schools must wear masks now. They are asking for community town halls and one legislator wants Gov. Kate Brown to suspend the order.

State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, said the state should leave decisions on Covid protocols to local school boards and districts. He wants Brown to suspend the state’s order on Monday that masks are required now for all indoor school functions, including summer school.

In a written response to questions, state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said that he wants the mandate reversed.

“Governor Brown should allow each school district in full collaboration with local public health authorities to make a local decision on mask mandates in schools,” Findley wrote to the Enterprise.

Owens and Findley reacted to Brown’s order in a letter to her on Tuesday, Aug. 3, asking her to show the science behind the mandate. They noted that a top state official said there was no evidence that schools were a source of spreading the coronavirus.

“We remain consistent in our positions that our local school districts in conjunction with local public health authorities continue to have the best pulse on their communities and should ultimately be the arbiters of mask policies and mandates,” Owens and Findley wrote in their letter.

“I have been consistently opposed to top-down one-size-fits-all mandates and I believe each school district should make their own determination on what’s best,” Findley told the Enterprise. “I have been an advocate for doing everything we can to slow the spread of Covid-19 and I trust our local authorities to make those decisions.”

State education and health officials explained to school officials and state legislators on Monday that they were acting to impose the mandate because of rapid increases in Covid cases across the state, including the Delta variant.

“This rule took effect on August 2, 2021, meaning summer school and other summer programming students and staff are now required to wear face coverings,” the state Education Department said in a statement. “Quite simply, face coverings mean more days in school for more students.”

Nikki Albisu, Ontario School District superintendent, was of a similar mind. 

“Quite honestly, we are just grateful that our students will be back in school full time,” she said. “Wearing a mask seems like a small price to pay for helping to keep kids and staff safe and healthy.”

But Alisha McBride, Vale School District superintendent, who has been a vocal opponent of state control of masking policies, said that the meeting Monday between superintendents and the Oregon Department of Education had not been a true conversation. 

“There was not an opportunity for feedback or discussion,” she said.

“I wasn’t able to speak, but I did let my voice be heard on that decision in the chat and in emails to state leaders,” said Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent, who has also spoken publicly about the need for local control.

In their letter, Findley and Owens asked the governor to convene town halls to explain the new rules – and the risk educators face if they don’t follow the mandates.

“The listening sessions would be a two-way conversation where the governor and ODE have to take ownership of this mandate, present the science to back it up, explain the details and implications of the mandate, and have public conversations to hear from community members,” Findley told the Enterprise.

The Education Department said any school violating the mandate could be fined up to $500 a day. The agency also noted that state law requires educators to “maintain the dignity of the profession by respecting and obeying the law” and those who violate state standards could be subject to “discipline for gross neglect of duty.”

Owens said that for now educators should comply with the mandate because they are “at high risk of losing their license” if they don’t.

He said in an interview that he wants Brown to suspend her order until town halls can be conducted to gather community sentiment. He said those should happen in the next two weeks.

The legislators in their letter asked the governor to disclose what science was used to justify the mandate.

“We all agree our students cannot suffer another year without in-person instruction. We also agree the health and safety of Oregonians must be a top priority. We now need to agree that building public trust through transparency and providing information before regulation will be key to slowing and eventually stopping the spread of COVID-19 and its variants,” they wrote.

Vale High School students interviewed by the Enterprise said they didn’t favor having to wear masks at school.

In fact, Riley Johnson, a senior, said that her father had told her that if Vale enforces the mask mandate, he would pull her and her brother from the district. 

“I totally agree,” Riley Johnson said. “I think it should be a personal choice. We get to choose what we wear and how we act. This is another choice that is very personal and should be decided on an individual basis.”

“From enforcing (mask-wearing) so much last year in the hopes that we would be back to normal, it definitely feels like we’re moving backwards,” said Kailey McGourty, a senior. 

Trevor Bates said that he is claustrophobic, which makes wearing a mask especially unpleasant. 

“Something that’s that close to my face and irritating the skin is just unnecessary,” he said. 

Riley Johnson said that the logic of mask-wearing was different in a town like Vale than in a city like Portland. Bates agreed. 

“Our community is not very big and large, so school is a chance to get some freedom,” he said.

News tip? Contact Liliana Frankel at [email protected].

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