As the school year continues — and the pandemic drags on — more and more parents are voicing their frustration with their local school district board of directors.
The issue? Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide mask mandate. Or, rather, that the school boards have done little to nothing to “fight” against the mandate.
In Enumclaw, parents have been making their displeasure known for several months now, dominating the public comment section of board meetings.
“You guys are elected officials. The job of any elected official is to represent the will of the majority of the people you represent… the wide majority of people that I’ve heard speak at the last two board meetings are strongly, strongly against the mask mandates,” Matt Penoncello said at the Aug. 16 meeting. “You’ve told us that your hands are tied due to the recommendation from the Department of Health. My problem with this excuse — and let’s be clear, it is an excuse — is that you sat and allowed your hands to be tied. You did not fight, you did not question, you did not forward all of the data, all of the facts, all of the science, and all of the arguments that we’ve given to you.”
“When I asked you what would happen if you took a stand for what you know is right, you stated you will lose state funding. If we ask you to take a stand, you say your hands are tied,” Dana Wilcox said at the Sept. 20 meeting. “At this point, you’re already letting the state run the school. When will you stand for our kids? Our kids matter.”
Now, it’s come to the point where the school board has had to switch settings in order to accomodate the number of people wanting to attend meetings, going from the high school library to the auditorium during the Nov. 22 meeting. More than a dozen parents — and, for the first time, students — asked the school district to take some action.
“You constituency is asking you, and begging and pleading with you, and telling you we’ll keep showing up. We’ll grow in numbers, as you’ve seen by the change in venue. We’ll keep showing up. You work for us. This is our school district,” said Jason Caldwell, to thunderous applause from the audience. “It’s time to start dealing with us, your constituency, and our demands. Our mandates. We pay the taxes for it. We’ve told you we’ll back you if you stand with us. Stand with us. United we stand, divided we fall.”
(It’s likely still more people would have spoke during public comment over the Zoom virtual meeting platform. However, the school board elected to go offline at the start of the meeting due to an incident where an unknown Zoom participant repeated the “n” word until they were cut off.)
Many parents have asked the school board members for their opinion on the mask mandate, but it appears that the four members of the board have little interest in making their opinions public. The Courier-Herald reached out to the board for their thoughts by email late October.
“I am not a medical professional and at this time do not have a comment,” Tyson Gamblin wrote.
“The Governor’s Emergency Mandate RCW 43.06.220 and the Department of Health DOH 820-105 require masks to be worn in schools,” was another response by Jennifer Kent.
“My personal opinion on the subject is not relevant when making decisions as a board member,” reads a third from Jennifer Watterson.
Board President Bryan Stanwood did not respond.
However, while the board declined to opine about the mandate, they made it clear the district has no choice but to follow it, or risk financial repercussions.
According to the board members and district Public Information Officer Jessica McCartney, local school districts and school boards are not empowered to override the legal authority of the governor or public health officers during the time of a public health emergency.
“The Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, has made it clear that any district or board action that violates the law (this includes executive orders put in place by the governor) could result in loss of state funding,” McCartney said. “State funding accounts for roughly three-quarters of our district’s overall funding,” or about $41 million.
Repercussions would be swift; if the district decided to not follow the mask mandate, the state would first send a warning, giving the district 15 days to come back into compliance, according to Washington Administrative Code. If the district fails to do so, a second notice would be sent, this time giving a five-day window to come back into compliance. After that, the state would withhold the district’s monthly apportionment until the district comes back into compliance.
While parents may be hard-pressed finding support in the current board makeup, they may find some with incoming board members.
“I believe in personal responsibility and accountability and therefore, believe parents should decide whether their children wear a mask or not while at school. I personally oppose mask mandates,” said Paul Fisher, who will be replacing Stanwood in the coming month. “I believe the board should take action to support parents who have students in the district and have expressed the harm that mask wearing is having on their children’s physical and emotional health. My goal will be to work with the other School Board Directors and the Superintendent to come up with an appropriate plan of action. As we determine the appropriate action to take, we need to be mindful of Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction’s position regarding COVID mandate compliance — districts that do not comply with state COVID mandates risk losing state funding.”
Other incoming board members Julianne DeShayes, who is replacing Watterson, and Lori Metschan, who will be filling the currently-empty seat on the board, did not reply by print deadline.
During the public comment period at the Nov. 10, the White River School Board of Directors heard from several constituents who thanked the district for their navigation of the coronavirus crisis, but asked them to go further in resisting state mandates.
One commenter applauded the district for how they’ve navigated the coronavirus crisis and shared concerns over the safety of giving the COVID-19 vaccine to children. “I know everyone here cares about kids,” she said.
“I just want to encourage you to fight for our kids,” another speaker and parent of students in the school district said. “We want to partner with you and do this together. I understand about OSPI, about the Washington Department of Health. … But you choose how you respond to those things. And I applaud how you responded when you had 20 percent of your staff not want to be forced to be vaccinated. … I want to encourage you to fight for our kids in the same way.”
(White River, like Enumclaw, had most employees ultimately get vaccinated but managed to allow around a fifth of them to continue working with vaccine exemptions.)
Another speaker, who identified himself as a retired high school teacher from another district, described a lesson plan he developed that would teach kids how to identify and respond to tyranny.
“They have to know that, what Thomas Jefferson said: When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty,” he said. “That’s their duty to look at it and say ‘Uh-uh. Not me. Not going to do that.’ And remember that pushback is always expected; when Sleepy Joe talks to Jay Inslee, and Sleepy Joe suggests another mandate just to see how we react, if we don’t react, they think another mandate would work. But if you do react, things can change.”
He also pitched the idea to the school board that a group of parents could create a phone tree to coordinate displays of solidarity or protest against mask-wearing among students.
School board President Denise Vogel, speaking on behalf of the board, said in an email last week that their responsibility is to follow the laws of Washington State and the policies of the White River School District.
“Personal opinions are just that,” she wrote on Nov. 24.
“As a board, our understanding is that the Governor of Washington State has broad emergency powers under RCW 43.06.220,” Vogel explained. “Governor Inslee proclaimed a state of emergency on February 29th, 2020 and that has not been lifted at this point in time, which means that his power to do the things he deems necessary to maintain the health and safety of the citizens of Washington State are still in play. The mask mandate is currently a part of that.”
The Courier-Herald asked Vogel whether board members believe they should take action to show support for parents opposing the mask and other COVID-19 mandates.
“Advocating for the students of the district” is the action the board is taking, she wrote in response, pointing to measures the district has taken since the outbreak of the pandemic:
• Participating in the School-Based Testing Pilot last year to bring kids back into classes before most other school districts, which ultimately helped the district and others go back to class full-time this year.
• Maintaining lower COVID transmission rates in the schools than in the community at-large. (Only nine district COVID cases are considered to have “likely originated” within school as opposed to 332 originating outside, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.)
• Advocating for testing symptomatic students and allowing non-symptomatic students to stay in school when cases are detected.
OTHER DISTRICTS TAKE ACTION
It appears few districts have pushed back against the mask mandate, given the consequences.
A group of 40 superintendents sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee last August stating that while “we will follow these requirements as best we can,” they would like to see the governor “establish a specific metric to apply to local communities… for when the masks can come off,” Spokane news station KHQ reported Aug. 19.
“This will provide hope for our students and will give our communities a goal to rally around,” the letter continues.
A letter from the Okanogan School District to the governor went a bit further.
“The Okanogan School Board of Directors feel the time to lift the mask requirement for K-12 students has arrived,” the August letter reads. “The State Superintendent has now threatened schools with frozen funding if we do not comply, and has left our hands tied. As a board, we implore you to reevaluate the decision you have made to better serve our students and communities.”
The Kittitas School District went further still, going on the record that it would not enforce the mask mandate.
“Right now the mandate is you got to wear it (the mask). That’s the mandate but we don’t enforce, we’re not cops,” said board Vice-Chairman Brian Stickney, as reported by the Daily Record News last August.
However, the district quickly reversed after OSPI sent a warning about losing state funding, said Katy Payne, OSPI’s director of communications.
As of Nov. 23, none of the state’s 295 districts are out-of-compliance per the mask mandate, Payne continued.