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Several school districts defy executive order, vote to go mask optional before March 31

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By ALEX BAUMHARDT/Oregon Capital Chronicle — School leaders across the state are five weeks away from having the power to make masks optional for students and staff without the risk of fines or the loss of Covid relief funds.

Still, school boards in Alsea, Redmond and Molalla River have decided to skip the wait and accept the risks to allow for optional masking early.

It’s a move that puts their district superintendents in a difficult position: Follow Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order to mask in schools until March 31 and risk being fired by their school board, or follow their school board’s decision and risk losing some school funding, their superintendent’s license and risk their district paying fines of up to $500 per day.

In Redmond, a district of 7,500 students north of Bend, board members cited student mental health concerns and speculation about the effectiveness of masks in their resolution to defy the executive order and go mask-optional by March 2.

Redmond Superintendent Charan Cline said the decision by the board is another challenge for him on top of a year of unending challenges.

“I have worked hard to thread the needle around here – to keep people safe and to create as much flexibility as I can for folks. I’m trying to run a district and keep us legal,” he said. “I am uninterested in putting my license on the line.”

Directors at the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators fear more school boards will make similar decisions to Redmond, and they are holding a statewide meeting Tuesday, Feb. 22, to discuss options.

Krista Parent, the association’s director of executive leadership, wrote by email that they are hoping for state agencies to step in to alleviate the pressures on superintendents around enforcement of Covid protocols.

“This has been so difficult – to have mandates that aren’t really able to be enforced at the state level makes the burden land squarely on the shoulders of superintendents.”

Marc Seigel, communications director at the Oregon Department of Education, said agency officials would release further guidance for districts next week. Cline hopes the department will accelerate the mask policy change, sparing him a tough decision.

Neither the state Education Department nor the Oregon Health Authority responded directly to the question of moving the date, but Seigel wrote that the agencies “believe it will be safe to make masking decisions local when hospitalizations return to pre-omicron levels.”

Why March 31?

On Feb. 7, the Oregon Health Authority announced that by March 31, the decision about whether to continue requiring masks in schools would be up to local districts. Until then, Brown’s executive order requiring masks in schools would be enforced. This was so Covid cases across the state, spurred by the omicron variant, could go down, and so schools would have time to prepare and to get staff and community feedback on how they want to go forward.

Schools that chose to decide on their own to end the masking requirement ahead of schedule could lose some state funding and the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission could suspend or revoke licenses of school officials who violate the mandate. Violations would be investigated by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, which can impose daily fines.

The state decision to end the mandate came one week after the Alsea School District near Corvallis went mask optional. Both the school board and the superintendent, Marc Thiel, are being investigated by OSHA. So far, no fines have been issued but the district is no longer receiving state funding for covid expenses.

Alsea was the first district to defy the state mandate, but not the first district or school board to entertain the idea. In Molalla River, Redmond and Tillamook, the movement had been underway for some time. In Molalla River, classes were canceled Feb. 18 due to ongoing student-led protests against mask mandates. The same day, the school board voted to go mask-optional by March 3.

In Tillamook, the school board voted Feb. 14 on a resolution for local control that it plans to send to the state Education Department, Health Authority, Brown and other officials. The board resolved to allow for parental choice on student masking, without a firm date attached.

Curt Shelley, Tillamook superintendent, said by email that he intends to continue enforcing the statewide mask mandate until March 31.

Possible protections for superintendents 

proposal now being considered by legislators would prohibit school boards from ordering superintendents to violate state and federal laws and executive orders and would prohibit school boards from firing superintendents for obeying rules despite board directives.

The proposal, Senate Bill 1521, will be up for a vote by the House Committee on Education on Tuesday, Feb. 22. It has already been approved by the Senate Committee on Education.

Parent, of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, said the association is counting on it to pass.

Until then, she wrote, “We are recommending superintendents go on the record numerous times stating their opposition to violating the law so that when their boards make that directive they are on better ground.”

Alex Pulaski, communications director at the Oregon School Boards Association, said the association can’t comment on situations where it may have provided legal advice to members, but association officials are advising school leaders to continue following state and federal laws.

After March 31

The Education Department is recommending schools continue to enforce masking even after March 31. Districts that choose to make masks optional will sacrifice their access to the test-to-stay program that had allowed unvaccinated students to stay in school even after an exposure. Without a mask requirement in schools, unvaccinated students will need to quarantine immediately after an exposure, the state is saying.

Schools that choose to make masks optional could be legally liable. Mary Paulson, deputy director at the Oregon School Boards Association, has advised districts to consult with attorneys about safety and liability concerns.

Cline, in Redmond, would not yet say whether he will defy his board’s decision to go mask optional on Wednesday, March 2.

He has about a week to decide.

“I will do everything I can to work with the board and with the state and local health authorities to come up with as legal a solution as possible,” he said.

Cline, who served in the U.S. Army in the late 80s and early 90s, said being a school superintendent during a global pandemic felt like an extension of that service. He took the job as Redmond’s superintendent in 2020.

“I was happy to be in a position where I could help,” he said. “Now I feel in the middle of a political fight, it’s not my goal and it’s not where I wanted to be.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is a nonprofit Salem-based news service that focuses its reporting on Oregon state government, politics and policy.

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