The Philomath School Board will not challenge Gov. Kate Brown’s indoor mask mandate for K-12 schools with approval of a motion on Thursday night to move forward with the state’s guidance.
Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday said she’s in agreement with the governor’s mask mandate at this time.
“My rationale for this recommendation is based on the current science of COVID‐19 and the best interest of our students and community,” she said. “The ultimate goal is for students to be provided with in‐person learning as much as is possible in the 2021‐22 school year. This means that Oregon may, in time, back off on required mandates. However, should infection rates worsen, we may also have to increase required mandates.”
Under the state mandate, all students, employees and visitors in Oregon schools must be masked, aligning with the Centers for Disease Control’s latest recommendations. The requirement applies indoors during school hours and at all school activities outside of school buildings such as field trips. Students and staff do not need to wear masks outdoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Six people shared their views on the mask mandate during the public comments portion of Thursday’s meeting and a seventh testified through email. Four of the seven voiced opposition to masks in the classroom while the other three were in favor.
For example, the mother of a fifth grader at Philomath Elementary said, “I strongly reject any mandate that takes parents out of the equation — it is wrong. As a parent, it is my job to know what is best for my child’s health and well-being.”
On the other side of the issue, the mother of a son heading into the eighth grade told the board, “I fully support the mask mandates from a public health perspective. The governor’s office is making the right call here and I’m really glad they took that out of your hands.”
Halliday said that in a survey distributed by the school district, 97.5% of parents want their children to return to in-classroom instruction.
“Our students are caught in the throes of a global pandemic and related polarizing divide and COVID fatigue is evident everywhere,” Halliday said. “While I personally would prefer not to wear a face covering, I am committed to doing it for the health benefits of our students and community.”
Classes begin in the Philomath School District on Sept. 7-8.
According to figures provided in Halliday’s report, 69.1% of people in Philomath’s zip code and 65.8% in Benton County have been vaccinated. Both of those figures are higher than the Oregon vaccination rate of 61.8%.
The majority of School Board members voiced support for Halliday’s stance on the mask issue and a few brought up the possible financial penalties if the district does not follow the state mandate.
“We are mandated and we will be severely financially penalized if we don’t follow that mandate and so our hands are sort of tied,” board member Joe Dealy said, a point that had also been brought up by Anton Grube.
Rick Wells was the lone board member not in favor of the mask mandate.
“I believe wholeheartedly in choice but in this instance, the state has us over a barrel — the financial implications to us if we go against what they say,” Wells said. “I’m not in favor of this mandate that she came out with. … It’s a tough thing to deal with and I think we should put pressure on the state, the governor, to give it back to local control.”
A school that violates the rule could pay a civil penalty of $500 per day per violation. Licensed educators could face additional penalties.
Toward the end of Halliday’s report, audience members spoke up with comments that included the damage caused by high anxiety levels among students, possibly dangerous breathing-related outcomes associated with wearing a mask and perspectives on the effectiveness of cloth face coverings.
Dealy made the motion to enforce the state’s mask mandate with a second by board member Karen Skinkis. It passed on a 4-1 vote with Dealy, Grube, Erin Gudge and Skinkis in favor and Wells against.