Southwest Oregon School District Plans to Lift Mask Mandate

Despite losing a significant portion of federal funding, leaders of the Alsea School District are moving forward with their plan to allow students and staff to forgo masks when they return to school buildings on Monday, January 31 — making them one of the first public school districts in Oregon to openly defy the state’s Covid mandates, which are among the strictest in the nation.

Superintendent Marc Thielman, who oversees the 838 students enrolled in the district about 30 miles southwest of Corvallis, said he would accept losing the money, an estimated $325,000 from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

“On Monday, masks will be optional,” he said. “They’ve been exhausting and harming the school climate.”

On Friday, January 21, Thielman, posted a letter to the district website saying that the Alsea School Board had voted to defy the state mask mandate, and he would follow its guidance. Students and staff would no longer need to wear masks at the district’s two school buildings, only on the bus due to overriding federal regulations.

The Alsea Education Association — the local teachers union — has voiced its opposition to the school board’s resolution, saying in a letter this week that the decision puts the health and safety of staff, students and the entire community at risk. However, Thielman told KATU the move also had the support of most parents in the district.

“They want balance,” he said. “They want us to use good science, good data, to consider data from other agencies, and they want me as the superintendent balance with negative aspects of efforts of those mitigations.”

The new policy was to go into effect Monday, January 24, but Thielman posted another letter to the district site Sunday saying he had decided to close schools Monday and Tuesday due to Covid-related staff shortages. He later extended the school closure through the end of the week and said that they would reopen January 31.

Oregon has $1.7 billion available for schools from the federal relief fund to help pay for building improvements, teachers and programs to help students catch up on lost class time and learning opportunities.

As of December 2021, Alsea had undertaken about $48,000 worth of projects that qualified for federal relief funds, and the state had reimbursed a little more than half of it. Alsea’s budget as of the district’s 2021-22 budget is about $15 million.

The loss of federal funds “is like losing a quarter for us,” Thielman said. Enrollment for the two-building district, which reported only 158 students in the 2017-18 school year, has surged over the past two years due to its aggressive focus on in-person instruction during the pandemic.

More than half the students in the Alsea School District receive free and reduced lunch, often used as a proxy for the percentage of students from low-income households, and they reported a graduation rate of less than 50% for the class of 2021.

In a note to Thielman, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill wrote that the district’s violation of executive mandates could result in fines of anywhere from $100 to more than $125,000 and daily fines of $250 to more than $12,500 per day for violations.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSHA), which is in charge of enforcing penalties related to defying statewide orders, said it was evaluating complaints connected to Alsea’s actions this week, and it may take a few days to open an investigation.

In November, the Adrian School District in eastern Oregon was fined $11,000 for not enforcing the state’s mask mandate and ultimately moved back into compliance. Gill also reported Thielman’s letter to the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which could suspend or revoke his state license.

Thielman said the board decided to defy the mask mandate and he supported the action because the latest wave of those infected by the Omicron variant of the virus is slowing and that paper and cloth masks aren’t effective enough to stop it.

While cloth masks are not as effective against Omicron, they still help prevent the spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of children in Oregon hospitalized with Covid is at an all-time high according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Though Alsea, a small, rural district in Benton County in southwest Oregon, is far removed from Canby and the Portland metro area, the showdown could have an outsize impact across Oregon’s schools. Thielman is also a Republican gubernatorial candidate and has been a favored voice among conservatives opposing mask mandates and other strict statewide efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19.

He’s also been floated as a possible candidate to take the helm of the 5,200-student Newberg School District, replacing former Superintendent Joseph Morelock, who was fired late last year in a controversial decision by that board’s new conservative majority.

Some Canby leaders are also among his admirers. Canby School Board members Dawn Depner and Stefani Carlson invited Thielman to a virtual meeting last February to share how Alsea had safely reopened for in-person learning months ahead of most districts, but the rest of the board and then-Superintendent Trip Goodall declined on the basis that it would not be applicable to the far-larger Canby School District.

Later that meeting, Depner walked her colleagues and district staff through Thielman’s presentation anyway, saying she still felt it would be helpful, with Thielman occasionally coaching and commenting in a whisper off-screen.

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