On Wednesday, the Molalla River School Board voted to reverse its decision the previous week to make masks optional inside school facilities before the statewide mandate was lifted.
The board had, in a special session on February 17, discussed a resolution that would make masks optional starting March 31 — in line with the state’s timeline for lifting the mandate starting the week last.
During this meeting, the resolution was amended to include language that also prohibited vaccination mandates and the date was moved to March 3. The amended resolution passed 6-1, with only Board Vice Chairman Neal Lucht in opposition.
In a business session a week later, the board voted unanimously to replace the decision with the resolution as originally presented, with an effective date of March 31 and no language. specific on vaccinations for students or staff.
Watch the full Molalla River School Board February 23 working session below:
Since the board meeting, the state has announced that it is advancing its timeline, with the end of the mask mandate in schools and indoor public spaces now set for March 19.
It is assumed that the Molalla River School Board will change its resolution again to comply with this new date. The original resolution contains language to the effect that it may be amended at any time deemed appropriate by the board.
During the working session, board members cited several serious and largely unforeseen financial, legal, professional and health repercussions that resulted or were threatened if they went ahead with not following the guidelines. of State.
Superintendent Tony Mann began this week’s meeting by reiterating that he had done so and urged not to flout state mask rules.
“My recommendation was based and continues to be based not on fear of repercussions or loss of [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] fund, or the nature of community feeling,” Mann said. “My recommendation was based solely on the fact that we are a law-abiding organization.
“Our students and future generations deserve to learn and thrive in orderly school environments, and the rule of law provides for this. As I have said many times, at board meetings and elsewhere, we cannot choose the rules and laws we follow. »
The Molalla River school district and council received “numerous complaints” after passing the Feb. 17 resolution, a council member said, along with stern letters from the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Health Authority and local teachers’ union threatening fines, loss of funding and other possible fallout.
ODE Director Colt Gill told the board unequivocally that the state’s masking guidelines remain in effect until lifted by the OHA, and that they “have the force of law”.
“On a human level, the Molalla River School Board puts staff and students in an untenable position of having to choose between following the directive of their local school board leaders or the laws governing the state,” Gill warned in his letter of February 22.
Board Chairman Mark Lucht echoed that sentiment later in the meeting, saying, “I think what happened with the resolution as it’s written is is that we have [made it so] our superintendent cannot thread the needle. He must choose one or the other. Either he takes the directive from the board of directors, or he takes the directive from the state.
The district could lose access to an estimated $3 million refund of federal coronavirus relief funds through ESSER, while Collete Young, administrator of the OHA’s Center for Public Health Practice, said the Molalla schools could face fines of up to $500 per violation per day for ignoring state mask or vaccine rules.
If the board goes ahead with its plans, its Feb. 25 letter warns that “the OHA will take necessary enforcement action, which may include issuing civil penalty notices and conducting an investigation. formal statement on compliance with vaccine requirements”.
Jeff Claxton, president of the Molalla River Education Association, wrote that the organization had ‘serious concerns’ about the council’s decision to lift the mask mandate early, saying it could violate the district’s collective bargaining agreement with the union. and placing teachers in an impossible ethical situation. dilemma.
“The Ethical Educators Act obligates 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 Feb. 22.
“Under this law, we are required to ensure that the administrative order is complied with while it is still in force in order to protect our licenses and honor the profession. As one of our members said, “We will not follow any resolution that requires us to engage in unethical or illegal behavior.”
During the Feb. 23 business session, council members initially parted ways, with some preferring to revert to the original resolution to keep the district in compliance while others, like superintendent Linda Eskridge, preferred to rescind it. and start over.
She lamented that then-board attorney Brian Hungerford didn’t voice all the possible repercussions before voting and didn’t take the time to listen to employees’ concerns. regarding the move.
“It affects them and our children,” she said. “We just have to make sure we have all our oars in the water before we make another resolution. We have to have this well thought out, well planned and then executed correctly. This one was a bit rushed.
But director Michelle Boren said many elements of the resolution, like its demands for the return of local control over health and safety protocols, were important and should be preserved.
“I know, for me, it wasn’t about being defiant,” she said of the resolution. “It was about doing what is best for you, our children. You know, they’re really hurting right now. It was difficult.
No council member appeared to be in favor of the mask mandate or the state’s coronavirus restrictions – which have been among the toughest in the country. (Oregon has also had the third-lowest infection rate in the nation and the seventh-lowest death rate throughout the pandemic, which state officials are quick to point out and point out. bind to restrictions.)
The council spoke out against the negative effects the last 12 months of masked in-person teaching has had on children, who are – for the most part – at low risk of serious complications from the virus.
“I feel like the kids are being psychologically tortured with the masks,” Eskridge said. “I believe the governor and the government have tried very hard and they’ve had enough. I’m tired of him.”
But while board members felt a rollback was needed, some questioned whether it was the right way to go. If the district lost millions of dollars in funding, Vice President Lucht explained, then it would be the students who would pay the price for the council’s defiance.
“To me, it’s the whole idea of using our children to try to push back against the state,” he said. “These dollars are really for our children in this district, to keep them healthy and sane and as safe as possible while we deal with this crisis. I agree with everything that has been said about government overreach, I just don’t think we are using the right weapon and tool.
The council concluded the working session by voting to form a committee to select a new general counsel for the council, as Hungerford had resigned following the special meeting the previous week. Chairman Lucht, Eskridge and director Amy McNeil were cast to help Mann with the process.
McNeil expressed that she would prefer a “neutral” attorney, more independent of state agencies like the ODE.
It’s unclear what fallout, if any, there will be from the council’s new course.
The February 17 meeting was packed with parents and community members who were fiercely opposed to students being forced to wear masks. It also followed two days of walkouts and student protests against the wearing of masks in front of colleges and high schools.
Those protests had prompted school officials to cancel classes across the district on Friday, Feb. 18, citing safety concerns, which Molalla River Middle School principal Randy Dalton explained in much more detail in a letter to the community last week.
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