A Spokane elementary school teacher who is opposed to the vaccination mandate and has shared debunked claims about COVID-19 vaccines has been accused of creating a hostile work environment after she wore a mask bearing a protest symbol.
For three days last week at Stevens Elementary School, teacher Raschelle Holland wore a KN95 mask with the likeness of a mockingjay, a fictitious bird species popularized in the "Hunger Games" books and movies as a symbol of defiance to tyranny.
In Holland's opinion, the tyrant is Gov. Jay Inslee because of his requirement that school teachers, state employees and health care workers either get vaccinated, receive a religious or medical exemption or lose their jobs.
The deadline passed last week, and the reality for the unvaccinated has set in: Dozens of employees, including firefighters, state troopers and even Washington State University coach Nick Rolovich, are out of a job.
In Spokane schools, administrators were able to engineer accommodations for some 700 employees and preserve their jobs. In many cases, such as that of Holland, who is a math intervention specialist at the northeast Spokane School, that means wearing a KN95.
But Holland isn't complying without expressing her disdain for the mandate.
Inslee declared the mandate earlier this year amid lagging vaccination rates. The science is clear on the issue: Vaccines save lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recent wave of infections and deaths has been a pandemic of the unvaccinated, as they are more than 11 times more likely to die of COVID than those who have received the shot.
Teachers have long been required to provide proof of vaccinations or relevant exemptions, such as the shot for MMR — measles, mumps and rubella.
Holland's mask also carried two slogans: "You Matter" and "Smile Under There."
On Friday morning, her principal, Adrian Espindola, told her that five co-workers had complained the sentiments drawn on her masks had created a hostile work environment.
Espindola ordered her to wear a mask without the mockingjay symbol, highlighting an important question about the free speech rights of public school employees.
Further complicating the issue, Holland alleged in an email to the district and The Spokesman-Review that the complaints stem from previous animosity from fellow employees, not necessarily from the mockingjay symbol.
She plans to file a grievance.
"I believe I am being discriminated against and my ability to do my job is being impacted," she said in the email. "I have been involved in an endless cycle of rumor and gossip."
Officials at the local teachers' union, the Spokane Education Association, did not reply to a request for comment.
But union officials, led by SEA president Jeremy Shay, have been reminding their members of the school district's civility policy that says, in part: "It is important to treat people with kindness. I also want to make it clear that someone's vaccination status is not your business and is not cause to treat them differently. Additionally, the mask type worn is not an indication of vaccination status. Violations of the civility policy are cause for discipline."
Spokane Public Schools did not address Holland's issue in particular, but issued a two-sentence statement Friday afternoon regarding mask and vaccine mandates, and free speech rights.
"Spokane Public Schools is aware of staff and students' interests to express their views regarding the Governor's requirement for masks and the vaccination of staff," the statement said. "We will approach this topic consistent with our historical practice that recognizes legal statutes regarding free speech rights of all district stakeholders."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has said the First Amendment protects teachers' speech "if they are speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern."
Students are allowed to wear armbands or other symbols as an expression of their political views unless that expression would cause "substantial and material disruption."
The rights of teachers to express their views within schools on public matters, however, is not so clear. Courts in Washington have not examined the issue, according to the ACLU.
State courts have, however, upheld discipline for teachers for wearing buttons supporting a political candidate, or for wearing anything with political messages or slogans.
The ACLU adds that "you can probably wear a necklace with a religious symbol on it, but that courts have upheld discipline for teachers wearing T-shirts with political messages or slogans. The same rule applies to classroom decorations or displays."
The ACLU's conclusion: "It is best to avoid any appearance that you are advocating a particular religious or political view."
So what about Holland's mask?
The mockingjay symbol wasn't her original choice.
Late last week, she painted six of her district-allotted masks with bright yellow stars and messages such as "Let Freedom Ring," "Courage over Fear," and "Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone."
She posted pictures on Facebook and received positive feedback, but she decided not to wear them in class upon further reflection. She feared some people might interpret the stars as representative of the Star of David and conclude that she was comparing mask mandates with the Holocaust.
"I didn't want anybody to be able to say that I'm equating it to that," Holland said. "That's why I stepped back from that."
Holland said she wants to send a message on behalf of unvaccinated — yet accommodated — school employees: "It's unjust and tyrannical," she said.
Instead of wearing a cloth mask, Holland and other accommodated employees must upgrade to the KN95, which the FDA said is woven from synthetic materials and filters out 95% of particles 0.3 microns in size or larger.
They form a tight-fitting seal around the nose and mouth. The masks are considered a suitable alternative to the gold standard N95 masks, which are inspected by U.S. regulators and approved by the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). KN95 masks follow Chinese performance standards and are approved by the FDA for use. They are widely available and can be purchased for less than $1 each.
While the school district's allotment of KN95 masks to accommodated employees was bright white, employees are welcome to purchase their own KN95 masks that are of a different color, which many people — including vaccinated employees at schools — wear every day.
"We (unvaccinated employees) are the ones wearing the KN95," Holland said.
"My point is that it separates out those people; as you walk down the hall, they're going to know," Holland said.