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Education

Parents Air Grievances About Mask, Vaccine Mandates At Klamath County Schools

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Holly Dillemuth
/
JPR News
Klamath County School District Superintendent Glen Szymoniak speaks to a large group in the parking lot of Henley High School in Klamath Falls on Wednesday evening in the first of two town halls hosted by county schools.

With school starting next week in the Klamath Basin, more than 170 people gathered under smoky skies Wednesday evening in the parking lot of Henley High School to air grievances about the mask and vaccine mandates issued by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

Klamath County School District hosted the outdoor town hall for school administrators to listen to comments and concerns from parents. But the mood quickly turned testy as some people urged the district to ignore the requirements for teachers and school workers to be vaccinated and for students and staff to wear masks.

When asked for a show of hands of those opposed to masks, hands shot up throughout the crowd.

This, while Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls announced it had reached its capacity for COVID-19 patients earlier this week, and has discussed erecting an outdoor field hospital to handle the patient overload.

As Klamath County Schools Superintendent Glen Szymoniak was about to read an Oregon Administrative Rule put in place by Gov. Kate Brown, audience members made it clear they didn’t want to hear it.

“We don’t care what the governor says,” a man said from the audience.

Audience members began to cut officials off, asking for them to follow other school districts, such as Redmond, and not to follow the mandates by Gov. Brown.

“We’re not interested in hearing what she (Gov. Brown) has to say,” one woman said from the crowd.

Several audience members left, and some who remained stressed that they wanted to have the choice to send their children to school with or without a mask.

Szymoniak told the crowd his job as a superintendent is to provide students with the best education possible, before he was cut off by an audience member.

As the meeting turned disruptive, facilitator Jessie DuBose nearly called the gathering to a close. Valeree Lane, public information officer for Klamath County Public Health, stood up and tried to calm the crowd by offering more information.

“We don’t want any more COVID information,” an audience member responded. “We’re well aware of what COVID is. We want someone in a power position to stand up for our children and that is not happening.”

Parents asked officials to push back on the mandates from Gov. Brown.

“What I see is a whole bunch of people that are asking me and the principals to put our livelihoods at risk,” Szymoniak said.

The crowd applauded.

“Yeah, we are,” one person said.

“How about you stand up to the governor?” another man yelled out.

Szymoniak explained efforts by the Klamath County School District to have students return to the classroom in early 2021 when others around the state were still learning from home. He said pushing back against the mandates isn’t the way to change the law.

Audience members responded by yelling back, “It’s not a law,” and “It’s a mandate.”

“A governor’s executive order carries the weight of the law,” Szymoniak responded.

“Public health is who we listen to in a pandemic,” he added.

Szymoniak emphasized that administrators want to follow the guidelines they’re being given by the state, in accordance with the school district’s legal advice. He explained the risks of disobeying the mandate.

“For anybody that’s not following the rules, we lose any kind of liability that we have for coverage, all the way from liability for the school district and people as employees and if certain things happen, then people could be held liable personally, depending on what the violation is.”

Szymoniak said schools can also be fined for breaking OSHA rules or Oregon Health Authority rules in regards to masks or facing the smaller possibility of losing some funding from the state if they go against mandates from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

He went on to explain the nuances of what the school year would look like under the mandates.

Students will have a medical or disability accommodation for not wearing a mask, but not a religious exemption.

Mesh and lace masks cannot be worn by students as they don’t qualify due to standards required for face coverings.

“At this point there is no social distancing mandate, however we’re going to try to keep as much space as possible between the students,” Szymoniak said.

Students will not be asked to social distance on buses, at lunch, or at recess and outdoor P.E. when not gathered as a group.

“We’re going to be looking at getting as much time without masks as possible,” he said.

At one point, Henley football players Shivam Patel, a freshman, and Justin Elbert, a sophomore, stood in front of the crowd and shared their thoughts on the mask mandate. Both were outfitted for football practice; Patel plays on the freshmen Henley team and Elbert for the junior varsity team.

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Holly Dillemuth
Henley High football players Justin Elbert (L) and Shivam Patel, spoke in support of obeying the governor's mask mandate.

“We just want to get the pandemic over with, you know,” Patel said. “I know everyone hates wearing their mask and all that but it’s for the better and for our kids.”

“I personally don’t like masks but if it’s the way I have to get my education, I’ll go with it,” Elbert said.

School board member John Rademacher rose and asked the crowd if anyone has lost a loved one due to COVID-19. Several hands went up.

A community panel of local leaders was also in attendance at the town hall, including Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber, Commissioner Derrick DeGroot, Public Health Director Jennifer Little, though it was emphasized that the town hall was a schools and education forum.

“We’re working together to figure out how to provide a safe and effective educational system here, no matter what the situation has thrown at us,” Szymoniak told the group of attendees. “We’re going to work together to do the best that we can for our kids.”

School and community leaders remained following the hour-long meeting to answer questions from parents.

“I wanted to thank all of our parents who took the time to talk with us tonight,” Szymoniak said in a news release issued following the town hall. “We all agree that the best place for children to learn is in the classroom with their teachers. We need to work together in a way that doesn’t jeopardize keeping our schools open.”

The school district is holding another town hall on Thursday evening at Mazama High School for the same purpose.