The Molalla River School Board on Thursday voted 6-1 to pass a resolution making masks optional for students and staff starting March 3 — four weeks before Oregon’s statewide mandate is expected to be lifted.
Parents and community members packed the Molalla High School cafeteria in support of the resolution, and the vast majority spoke in favor of the proposal, which also makes Covid-19 vaccination optional in the district starting next month (state standards currently require the shots only for educators and school staff).
The meeting’s turnout and resolution were also the culmination of several days of demonstrations held outside Molalla schools this week. Middle and high school students walked out of class Wednesday and Thursday to call for an end to the classroom mask mandate.
And the school district ended up canceling classes Friday, citing the disruptive and even threatening nature of the protests, though several speakers the previous night, including Molalla Mayor Scott Keyser, said Superintendent Tony Mann and other school officials had mischaracterized the nature of the demonstrations.
“This community has a huge lack of confidence in our superintendent and the leadership he is providing our schools,” said Keyser, who also addressed the controversy surrounding a series of alleged racist incidents at a recent basketball game. “And, in turn, if something doesn’t happen soon, the city’s confidence is going to be failing in our school board.”
Attendees including parents, teachers, school staff and students said they want masking to be optional, regardless of possible consequences the district may face, which could include loss of federal funding or fines from the state.
“We will not back down,” one speaker said. “We will not give up until we think we got what was right.”
The issue has become an emotional one for many parents and students who oppose the mandate.
“My daughter was told as she was trying to come into the school without a mask that she was going to be arrested,” another parent commented during the meeting.
Board Vice Chair Neal Lucht was the only one on the seven-member board who voted against the resolution, lamenting that masking has become such a divisive issue in the Molalla community.
“I think, when we look at the discourse of all of this, whether it’s the third or the 31st, we need to inspire hope for these kids,” Lucht said.
Director Ralph Gierke had similar sentiments: “I think the thing that bothers me the most at this point is that this whole thing is dividing our community and our kids.”
While the majority of attendees hailed the school board’s decision, others said the change should take effect immediately.
“Not willing to wait two more weeks,” one parent, Kim White, told FOX 12 News at one of this week’s protests. “Not willing to wait until March 31.”
But the board, district staff and the board’s attorney, Brian Hungerford, maintained the two weeks were needed to allow the teachers’ union to demand to bargain, as health and safety protocols are mandatory bargaining subjects in the district’s labor contract.
Molalla River is the latest domino to fall in the long-running battle over masks in the classroom. Alsea School District voted to make masking optional in January, with Superintendent Marc Thielman later admitting the move cost the district about $275,000 in federal coronavirus funds.
The Redmond School District has also voted to make masking optional come March 2. Canby has maintained that it will follow the state’s timeline in keeping the mask rule in place until March 31.
Local parents and students have been increasingly willing to force the issue, however, most visibly in the form of 10 straight days of anti-mask demonstrations outside a Canby elementary school, which have ranged from a couple of families to several dozen participants from Canby and other districts.
Even if the MSRD gets some of its Covid funding yanked due to non-compliance, it appears this would not necessarily be permanent, according to reporting by KATU News.
Any district whose access to reimbursement with federal ESSER funds is suspended due to non-compliance would have the opportunity to regain access to the funding by submitting proof of compliance at a later date.
Districts that have voted to ax the mask requirement would be able to do that starting March 31, which is when state officials have maintained the school mask mandate will be lifted.
Mann and Board Chair Mark Lucht sent a letter to the community Saturday reiterating that masks will be required for all students, staff and visitors until the new policy takes effect March 3.
“The district will address any willful non-compliance of the universal masking requirement,” the letter said. “Adults refusing to wear a mask will be asked to leave the building, and students refusing to wear a mask will not be allowed to learn in-person at school.”
The joint letter also said protests may not occur on school property and are required to remain in public spaces, and that they must not interfere with the safe operation of school, including entrance and egress.
“We believe every day matters, and we look forward to working together during this time of transition as a school community,” the February 19 letter stated.
The announcement late Thursday that classes would be canceled the following day blamed the mask protests outside the middle and high schools.
“Over the last several days, it has been challenging to accommodate normal school operations and our mission of teaching and learning in our schools was disrupted,” the district’s statement said.
While acknowledging students’ right to protest, the district claimed that “student safety, one of our primary responsibilities, was difficult to manage during this time.”
But this was refuted by several, including Keyser and one student who took part in Wednesday’s protests, Cameron Celig.
“It was a barbeque out in the front of the school, so I don’t know what was scary about that,” Celig told FOX 12.
Friday’s closure also meant the postponement of the highly anticipated Share the Love closing assembly, which was rescheduled to February 25.
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