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Education

An Oregon school district passed permissive mask rules. Now the state's withholding some funds

Alsea School District Superintendent Marc Thielman poses for a portrait on the school campus in Alsea, Ore., in this file photo from August 2021.  Thielman, who is running for governor as a Republican, supported a school district policy lifting districtwide mask requirements for students.
Gillian Flaccus
/
AP
Alsea School District Superintendent Marc Thielman poses for a portrait on the school campus in Alsea, Ore., in this file photo from August 2021. Thielman, who is running for governor as a Republican, supported a school district policy lifting districtwide mask requirements for students.

The Alsea School District in Benton County has put masking decisions in the hands of staff and families. The state says that will deprive Alsea schools of federal COVID-19 funds.

In the small Coast Range school district of Alsea, it’s up to families and teachers whether to wear face coverings when they’re in class.

At the moment, maskless students and staff aren’t walking the halls of Alsea’s two main school campuses because, like a number of schools in various parts of Oregon, staff shortages related to the spread of the omicron variant have forced the buildings to close. Unless the district reverses its decision to buck the state’s indoor mask requirements, Alsea’s opposition to masks will cost it federal funding.

“Alsea SD is scheduled to receive approximately $324,000 in ESSER resources that is currently on hold,” the Oregon Department of Education said in an email to OPB Wednesday. ESSER refers to the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, passed as part of Congress’ COVID-19 response. The district previously received more than $50,000 from the fund, in reimbursements processed before its mask policy changed.

Wearing face coverings indoors has been the subject of controversy over the last few weeks, as the Oregon Health Authority has taken public testimony on mask rules for businesses, as well as schools and health care settings. While many states have relaxed mask requirements, Oregon has not, and public health officials continue to emphasize their importance in limiting the spread of COVID-19.

A few school board members expressed opposition to mask requirements to OHA, and according to the Oregon Department of Education, two districts have passed policies against them. One is the small Adrian School District in eastern Oregon, which ODE said has come into compliance; the other is Alsea.

The conflict between Alsea and the state Education Department over masks started to heat up on Jan. 13, when the Alsea school board voted to put families and staff in charge of mask-wearing decisions, saying, “the determinant authority regarding the need to wear a mask will be returned to individual parents, staff, and students.” The resolution, which went into effect Monday, noted an exception for when students ride a school bus.

“I believe it will serve our school climate well by restoring confidence, reducing unhealthy mask conflict, and restoring respect for individual decision making without fear of reprisal,” Superintendent Marc Thielman, who is running for governor as a Republican, said in a Jan. 21 statement announcing the decision. “We are blessed to live and work in Alsea and I look forward to seeing so many real faces again on Monday.”

In a letter dated Sunday, the Oregon Department of Education told Thielman and Alsea school board chair Ron Koetz that the district would be losing out on federal COVID-19 funding due to its mask policy. The letter notes that a condition of receiving the federal money is compliance with “all state laws and regulations.” It goes on to lay out the state’s mask requirements.

“Due to the posted statement of willful noncompliance, ODE will not process any reimbursement requests for ESSER I, II and III eligible expenditures for Alsea School District at this time,” reads the letter, signed by ODE director Colt Gill.

The Alsea Education Association - the local teachers union - has also voiced its opposition to the school board’s resolution. In a letter dated January 24, union leaders called for the policy to be reversed “immediately,” and accused district leaders of “disregard for the health (both physical and mental) and safety of the entire Alsea community” — as well as that of students and staff.

“We are writing to inform you that we, the Alsea Education Association, cannot condone, support, or allow to move forward without objection, your policy change dated January 21, 2022 that purports to allow staff and students to violate a state mandate requiring masks indoors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 which has killed nearly one million Americans (5.5 million worldwide) so far,” the letter read.

“The union was not consulted and should have been.”

In the state education department’s letter, Gill laid out steps that Alsea will need to follow to reestablish eligibility for federal funds. Those include: adopting and sharing policies indicating compliance with the mask mandate, messaging to the school district community about those policies, and “an assurance signed by the superintendent and school board chair that the district will remain in compliance.” Gill’s letter concludes by telling district leaders that he has shared Thielman’s Jan. 21 statement with other authorities, including the Oregon Health Authority, the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission and Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It doesn’t appear Alsea officials are planning to change.

Two days after receiving ODE’s letter, Thielman sent a message acknowledging community members for being in touch about the mask mandate, with no indication the district is shifting course.

“I want to thank all of you who have reached out with your thoughts, opinions, and feedback regarding our adaptation of the Mask Mandate to be applied on an individual basis for all students, staff, and parents,” Thielman wrote. “This kind of engagement is greatly appreciated and it demonstrates that our school community is supported and tempered by caring, informed, and committed parents, staff and community stakeholders.”

But the mask policy wasn’t the main message of that most recent COVID update from Thielman. Instead, he announced that staffing shortages related to the ongoing spread of COVID-19 is extending the district’s school closures until Monday, Jan. 31.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.