At least a half-dozen Canby School District elementary students were turned away at the door Monday morning after they and their parents said they would no longer follow the state’s indoor mask mandate due to a New York Supreme Court ruling that briefly overturned school mask rules in that state last week before it was temporarily stayed.
The ruling by Supreme Court Judge Thomas Rademaker in Nassau County did not necessarily question the need for or efficacy of masks, but found the state did not go about putting the rule in place properly and that it could not be upheld under the State Constitution.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul Hochul vowed to fight the decision, with Letitia James, the state attorney general, turning in a successful motion to stay the ruling while the state prepares a formal appeal.
Oregon is a long way from New York, geographically speaking, but some opponents of mask mandates in the Beaver State found similarities that they believe should apply here. In Oregon, as in New York, the statewide mandates have generally been imposed by the governor through emergency powers and enforced by state agencies, without the Legislature’s involvement or approval.
“Judge Rademaker wrote in his decision that the governor does NOT have the authority to impose the mandate and that the state legislature would have to debate and APPROVE LAWS requiring masks in schools and other places,” April Pruss, a local mother of four, including three in Canby schools, said in an email to Superintendent Aaron Downs and other school officials Sunday night.
“This would include Governor Kate Brown’s mask mandates. We parents are fully aware that you have NO LEGAL AUTHORITY to mandate the masking of our children in school or in school-related activities.”
Pruss attempted to drop two of her children, a fourth-grader and kindergartner, off at Eccles Elementary School Monday along with two other moms and five other children, all unmasked, but were stopped at the door by Principal Andy McKean.
One of the other moms, Ashley Fryman, livestreamed a public video to Facebook afterward, saying she and her three kids planned to remain outside the school until Superintendent Aaron Downs returned her phone calls and addressed her concerns.
“We have to stand up for our kids and their constitutional rights,” she said. “All we want is the freedom to choose what’s best for our kids, and it starts with us as parents. These kids deserve to breathe. … We’re going to be out here freezing until we hear from somebody. Freedom.”
Fryman later told The Canby Current that Downs did call her back that morning, explaining, essentially, that the mask mandate was out of local officials’ control and that the district could face hefty fines or loss of funding if they failed to comply.
A smaller district in southwest Oregon lost access to several hundred thousand dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds due to its plans to lift the mask mandate this week, while the Adrian School District in eastern Oregon was fined $14,000 for mask violations before it returned to compliance last year.
Though she did not reference the New York Supreme Court decision, Fryman also claimed the law and Constitution forbid enforcement of mask mandates.
“If you guys didn’t know, it’s illegal to force people to wear a mask in any state,” Fryman said in her video. “It’s also illegal to force a mask that inhibits your natural ability to breathe, and our schools have no local authority to make change. They say you cannot come into the building.”
Oregon courts have repeatedly shot down legal challenges to the state’s Covid mandates, albeit sometimes on procedural grounds, such as a September 2021 ruling from the Oregon Court of Appeals that said the case was moot because the state’s mask rules had changed so many times.
“We understand some of our families may have questions around mask-wearing in schools,” Kristen Wohlers, the district’s communications director, said in a written statement to the Current Monday afternoon, responding to that morning’s incident. “At this time, there is no new guidance in Oregon that has removed the indoor mask mandate.
“Until these policies are updated or changed, we must operate using our current protocols and will need to ask students to wear masks indoors. We are keeping watch and implementing changes as they come. We also continue to focus on keeping our students in-person five days a week and making the most of that teaching and learning time.”
In a phone interview with the Current, Pruss cited several concerns she has with the school mask mandate.
“It’s just getting to the point where there’s no logic to it; there’s no medical purpose for it,” she said. “It’s inhibiting them. The kids do not like wearing the masks; they get wet; they get gross, and they can’t see their friends’ faces. It’s hard to communicate, especially for the kindergartners who are just learning how to speak.”
Pruss’ kindergartner experienced an unusual episode last November in which he suffered for hours from an abscessed tooth, which went unnoticed because of the mask. When she got him home, part of his jaw was red and swollen to twice its normal size, and he had to undergo an emergency dental procedure.
“No one thought to have him take a break and look at his face,” she said. “He went all day in school with them not even knowing because he had a dang mask on his face.”
Pruss kept her kids at home last year even after the return of in-person instruction due to the mask mandate, she said, and only enrolled them this year because the Canby School Board had voted to forego requiring face coverings this summer.
That vote was later rendered moot by the new statewide mandate from Governor Brown a few weeks later, reversing her previous course that would have allowed local districts to make those decisions. Pruss said she asked her kids at that point if they wanted to homeschool again and they declined, but are now “fed up with wearing masks.”
Pruss said she does plan to remove her two kids from Eccles, and that McKean had escorted them to their classrooms — without masks — on Monday to collect their things. She said she could have quietly removed her children from the public school system, as she did in early 2021, but felt strongly that she should speak out.
“I could have easily pulled my kids out and not make a fuss, just do what was best for my kids, but nobody ever created change by doing something quietly,” she said. “I felt this was bigger than just my family and my kids.
“There are so many parents who don’t have the luxury of homeschooling, and I wanted to be a voice for them. And there has been such an outpouring from those moms saying, ‘Thank you. We stand with you.'”
She said she was also motivated by the current efforts by Oregon Health Authority and other agencies to make permanent the state’s mask rules for indoor public spaces — including schools. Pruss attended and requested to speak at an OHA hearing last week to discuss the matter but officials ran out of time.
Fryman said she does not intend to unenroll her children at this time, but will instead return to school grounds daily and continue to challenge the mask mandate.
“My plan right now is to go daily, and keep trying,” she said. “I did talk to Andy McKean and I will be handing him a letter of all the laws he is breaking by denying my kids entry into the building. I want to be persistent, and have them continue to deny my kids entry from an illegal mandate.”
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