Molalla School Board Reverses Course on Lifting Mask Mandate Early

The Molalla River School Board on Wednesday voted to reverse its decision from the previous week to make masks optional inside school facilities before the statewide mandate is lifted.

The board had at a February 17 special session discussed a resolution that would make masks optional starting March 31 — in line with the state’s timeline for lifting the mandate as of last week.

During the course of that meeting, the resolution was amended to include language that also barred vaccination mandates and the date was moved up to March 3. The amended resolution passed 6-1, with only board Vice Chair Neal Lucht in opposition.

At a work session one week later, the board voted unanimously to replace the move with the resolution as it had originally been presented, with an effective date of March 31 and no specific language about vaccinations for students or staff.

Watch the Molalla River School Board’s full February 23 work session below:

Since the board’s meeting, the state announced it was moving its timeline up, with the end of the mask mandate in schools and indoor public spaces now set for March 19.

It’s assumed the Molalla River School Board will change their resolution again to be in line with this new date. The original resolution does contain language to the effect that it may be amended at any time deemed appropriate by the board.

At the work session, board members cited several serious and largely unforeseen financial, legal, labor and health-related repercussions that have resulted or were being threatened if they moved forward with disregarding state guidelines.

Superintendent Tony Mann began this week’s meeting by reiterating that he had and urged against flouting the state’s mask rules.

“My recommendation has been based and continues to be based not on fear of repercussions or the loss of [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] funds, or the nature of community sentiment,” Mann said. “My recommendation has been based solely on the fact that we’re an organization that follows the law.

“Our students and future generations deserve to learn and thrive in school environments with order, and the rule of law provides for this. As I’ve said many times, in board meetings and elsewhere, we can’t pick and choose what rules and laws we follow.”

The Molalla River School District and board received “a lot of complaints” after passing the February 17 resolution, one board member said, as well as stern letters from the Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Health Authority and the local teachers’ union threatening fines, loss of funding and other possible fallout.

ODE Director Colt Gill told the board in no uncertain terms that the statewide guidelines for masking remain in effect until they are lifted by OHA, and that they “have the force and effect of law.”

“On a human level, the Molalla River School Board is putting staff and students in an untenable situation of having to choose between following the directive of their local school board leaders or the laws governing the state,” Gill warned in his February 22 letter.

Board Chair Mark Lucht echoed this sentiment later in the meeting, saying “I think what has happened with the resolution as written, is that we’ve [made it so] our superintendent can’t thread the needle. He’s got to pick one or the other. Either he takes the directive from the board or he takes the directive from the state.”

The district could lose access to an estimated $3 million in reimbursement from federal coronavirus relief funds through ESSER, while Collete Young, administrator of the OHA’s Center for Public Health Practice, says Molalla schools could face fines of up to $500 per violation per day for disregarding the state’s mask or vaccine rules.

If the board moved forward with its plans, her February 25 letter warned, “OHA will take necessary enforcement actions which may include issuing civil penalty notices and undertaking a formal investigation of compliance with the vaccine requirements.”

Jeff Claxton, president of the Molalla River Education Association, wrote that the organization had “grave concerns” about the board’s decision to lift the mask mandate early, saying it may violate the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the union and place teachers in an impossible ethical quandary.

“The Ethical Educator Law requires our members to fulfill the obligations of their licensed profession by respecting and obeying the law, and exemplifying personal integrity and honesty,” Claxton wrote on February 22.

“Under this law, we are required to ensure the Administrative Order is upheld while still in effect to protect our licenses and honor the profession. As one of our members stated, ‘We will not follow any resolutions that require us to engage in unethical or illegal behavior.'”

During the February 23 work session, board members initially split, with some favoring reverting back to the original resolution to keep the district in compliance while others, like Director Linda Eskridge, preferred to rescind it and start over.

She lamented that the board’s then-attorney, Brian Hungerford, had not voiced all of the possible repercussions before they voted, and that they had not taken time to listen to employees’ concerns over the move.

“It’s affecting them, as well as our children,” she said. “We just need to make sure we have all of our oars in the water before doing another resolution. We need to have this well thought out, well-planned and then executed correctly. This one was kind of rushed.”

But Director Michelle Boren felt that many elements of the resolution, like its demands for local control over health and safety protocols to be returned, were important and should be preserved.

“I know that, for me, it was not about being defiant,” she said of the resolution. “It was about doing what’s best for you our kids. You know, they’re really suffering right now. This has been hard.”

No board members appeared to be in favor of the mask mandate or the state’s coronavirus restrictions — which have been among the strictest in the nation. (Oregon has also seen the country’s third-lowest infection rate and seventh-lowest death rate throughout the pandemic, something state officials are quick to point out and link to the restrictions.)

The board decried the negative effects the past 12 months of masked in-person instruction has had on children, who are — for the most part — at low risk for serious complications from the virus.

“I feel that the children are being psychologically tortured with the masks,” Eskridge said. “I believe the governor and the government have done a lot of overreaching and they’re tired of it. I’m tired of it.”

But while board members felt pushback was needed, some questioned whether this was the right way to do it. If the district lost millions in funding, Vice Chair Lucht reasoned, then it would be students paying the price for the board’s defiance.

“For me, it’s the whole idea of using our kids to try and beat back the state,” he said. “These dollars are really for our kids in this district, to keep them healthy and sane and as safe as we possibly can as we’re dealing with this crisis. I agree with everything that’s been said about government overreach, I just don’t think we’re using the right weapon and tool.”

The board concluded the work session with voting to form a committee to select a new general counsel for the board, as Hungerford had resigned following the special meeting the previous week. Chair Lucht, Eskridge and Director Amy McNeil were selected to assist Mann in the process.

McNeil expressed that she would favor a “neutral” attorney, one that was more independent from state agencies like the ODE.

It’s unclear what fallout, if any, there will be from the board’s new course.

The February 17 meeting had been crowded with parents and community members stridently opposed to students being forced to wear masks. It also followed two days of student walkouts and demonstrations against the mask mandate outside the middle and high schools.

Those protests had prompted school officials to cancel classes districtwide on Friday, February 18, citing safety concerns, something Molalla River Middle School Principal Randy Dalton explained in much greater detail in a letter to the community last week.

Help us build a sustainable news organization to serve Canby for generations to come! Let us know if you can support our efforts to expand our operations and keep all of our content paywall-free. #SwimWithTheCurrent!