There is one sure way to keep students out of classrooms come fall, Oregon Governor Kate Brown warned local school leaders Tuesday: teachers, families and school boards defying the state’s indoor mask mandate.
The admonition came in an open letter to superintendents, school board members and education leaders, defending her reinstated mask mandate for schools — which she later expanded to all indoor public spaces — and warning that flouting it could jeopardize the return to full-time, in-person learning.
“I have heard much about personal freedom when it comes to masks in school board meetings and on social media,” Brown said in the statement. “I have not heard as much said about personal responsibility. As leaders, we have a great responsibility to our students and their futures.”
Brown acknowledged that Oregon’s plans to fully reopen Oregon public schools, which felt immutable as recently as last month, are growing less certain, particularly given record transmission rates in some counties.
She also recognized the still-small but likely growing odds that some schools may need to pivot back to distance learning come the fall.
The governor cited rising Covid-19 cases statewide and nationally fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, which has also led to a surge of pediatric cases and hospitalizations in some parts of the country.
“One of the small mercies of this pandemic was that children did not seem as susceptible to severe cases of Covid-19 from the original strain of the virus,” Brown wrote. “The frustrating reality is that the virus has mutated, and so we must again adapt our strategies to protect Oregon’s kids.”
The governor’s reprimand comes as school board meetings around the state have at times devolved into shouting matches over her July 29 order that all students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, must mask up inside public and private schools when classes resume later this month.
In the Redmond district, the five-person school board is considering a resolution to defy the mask rule. A packed crowd cheered as board member Michael Summer read the text aloud, The Redmon Spokesman reported.
“As a parent, I feel like my rights have been stripped and it was, ‘Shut up and do what we tell you,’” Summers said. “And that doesn’t go over very well. There are ramifications for this. I fully understand that. I’m not trying to withhold somebody’s options, I’m trying to add one more.”
A handful of other rural districts like Crook County, Sutherlin and Culver pushed back on the new mandate shortly after it was announced — though most seemed to stop just short of promising to defy it.
The state has reportedly threatened fines of up to $500 per violation per day for districts that ignore the mask rule, while educators could face their own penalties for refusing to enforce the mandate within their classrooms, including a suspension of their license to teach.
In her statement this week, the governor criticized — though not by name — Marc Thielman, superintendent of the 400-student Alsea School District on the coast, who she claimed sent a letter to parents “urging them to request an accommodation for their child under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to avoid mask requirements.”
“I find it deeply appalling that any education leader — who is supposed to be setting an example for our students — would send a communication so callous and offensive to Oregon parents and children with disabilities,” Brown said. “ADA accommodations are in place for students who truly need them.”
Thielman later responded, saying Brown had mischaracterized his comments and that he had explicitly told parents that Alsea students would be expected to follow the new mask rules.
Meanwhile, leaders in other jurisdictions are standing up to public pressure.
In Grants Pass, district officials told the local ABC affiliate they will not risk their teachers’ credentials by defying state orders despite parents’ pleas for them to do so.
Josephine County, where Grants Pass is the county seat, has among the highest case rate per capita in the nation, according to The New York Times. The county of about 59,000 residents reported 361 new cases over the weekend and its seven-day average is 118.
The Canby School Board has not met since the new mask mandate was announced (its next regularly scheduled work session is Aug. 23), but a Clackamas County commissioners’ meeting held the day before Brown’s statewide indoor mask mandate took effect drew ferocious opposition from hundreds of residents.
The outbursts and defiance against Oregon’s mask mandates come even as the state’s hospitals near a breaking point, with intensive care beds filling with record numbers of Covid-19 patients and delta pushes statewide case rates to the highest levels seen since the pandemic began.
As of Monday, the state has seen six consecutive weeks of rising cases. Oregon posted an average of 1,820 cases per day last week, a new high. And the state set a daily record Tuesday with 2,941 new confirmed and presumptive infections — 151 of them in Clackamas County.
The state has already reported 40 Covid-related deaths this week — more than double the seven-day average just one month ago.
“Flouting mask requirements will put everything we have worked towards in the last year at risk,” Brown wrote. “Without the universal wearing of masks in our schools, the delta variant will spread.”
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