With less than a month until school starts, the Onalaska School Board is asking a question: Can their students and staff return to the classroom this fall with masks being optional?
It’s a big question for a small school district.
Some of the school board’s members say they’re willing to be the subject that tests the legal standing surrounding COVID-19 health guidelines brought down by the state and risk a loss of state funding.
As students return to full-time, in-person class this fall, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) have mandated that all K-12 public school staff members and students wear masks during the school day for this upcoming school year, regardless of vaccination status.
It’s a move that has triggered vocal ire from some parents and community members around the state — including in Onalaska.
School board members on Monday held a workshop meeting with state Reps. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, and Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, to discuss the issue. But participants seemed to come away from the meeting with more questions than answers on how far the district’s autonomy stretches.
Abbarno said the state law that pertains to withholding state funding from a school district is specific only to districts that fail to meet basic education benchmarks, which possibly may not include the use of masks in public school settings.
“I don’t think anybody truly knows what will happen if OSPI or the governor comes down and says, ‘If you don’t have a mask mandate, we’re going to withhold money.’ I’m sure that will be challenged. I’m sure the statute has been the center of certain litigation, but not necessarily as to whether or not basic education allocation is something that can or cannot be dealt with as it relates to a mask mandate or any other mandate outside of education,” Abbarno said, noting that “we’re all looking at this with fresh eyes.”
School board members said they are in the process of drafting a letter to OSPI and the governor asking what specific authority the state has on enforcing a mask mandate at any school district.
While the 20th Legislative District lawmakers said they wouldn’t find it appropriate to sign on to the district’s letter or tell the board what action it should take, they did voice support for pushing for more autonomous control for public school districts.
“I think this is a decision that’s best made in your community,” Orcutt said. “What’s happening in Seattle could be dramatically different from what’s happening in Onalaska, and we shouldn’t force you to live under the rules that are intended to address the situation in Seattle or some other part of the state … We don’t want a one-size-fits-all.”
Orcutt and Abbarno said they were planning to deliver their own inquiry on the issue to the state. Both said they were against any widespread mandates requiring vaccination or masks.
Some of the questions surrounding the mask mandate refer to the governor’s use of executive state of emergency powers, which legislative Republicans have been calling to reform since shortly after the start of the pandemic.
Orcutt said they’ve lost nearly all court challenges to Inslee’s state of emergency powers that have been in effect for 17 months now.
“With the court systems upholding everything he’s doing, we have a majority in Olympia that is the same party as he is and they’re unwilling to really challenge him at all or really put any limits on him. So, that’s what’s made it really difficult for us and our efforts to try and protect our communities from these types of rules and mandates being handed down,” Orcutt said.
The school board’s discussion came just after Inslee announced a requirement that all state employees, private health care workers and long-term care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, though there were exemptions laid out for religious and health reasons.
Some fear that a vaccine mandate could come down for public school employees or students once COVID-19 vaccines get use authorization for younger ages, though that has not happened yet.
The highly-infectious delta variant of COVID-19 has also played a role in Inslee’s vaccine mandate, with seven-day averages statewide being four times higher than what they were about a month ago, according to the state Department of Health, and as the state experiences a fifth wave of infections.
Though deaths have somewhat plateaued with 70% of the total state population fully vaccinated, hospitalizations remain high in every county, according to the governor’s office.
Regardless, four Onalaska School Board members are leaning toward voting for a mask-optional policy this fall, despite being warned by OSPI to follow health guidelines. Financial penalties is one possible result.
Board member Mary Glenn said the district needs to consider all repercussions and variables to the decision before choosing to have mask-optional policy this fall. In one example, Glenn said there could be some problems with liability that won’t be covered under the district’s insurance protection.
“Our lawyer has advised us that this is outside our jurisdiction, and then OSPI came out and said they would defund us. So, whether or not we write a letter and protest that, we are really hanging out there and I do not consider it a good use of taxpayer money to pay fines because we chose to go against the law. I think this money would be better spent on the students,” Glenn said. “There’s just a lot more at stake here than this viewpoint about OSPI.”
Board member Heidi Howard countered, saying that there would be a lot more at stake if they didn’t “take a stand” against the state.
“The future of our kids is really high risk — really, all of our rights. Do we take the risk now or do we take the risk later?” Howard asked, noting that a mask-optional policy wouldn’t take away student or teacher rights to mask up and social distance.
Onalaska appears to be the only public school district in Lewis County currently considering going against OSPI’s health guidance, according to Orcutt, Abbarno and Onalaska Superintendent Jeff Davis.
Speaking to The Chronicle after the meeting, Davis said discussion on this topic started about two or three months ago. At that time in the pandemic, hope that instruction in the fall would look more normal was running high.
“School was out and we were kind of celebrating the successes we’ve had. I think we were all hoping we’d have some different outcomes … But we’re kind of back to where we finished last year,” he said.
Davis said he’d like to see the school board move forward with the mask, social distancing and hygiene plan laid out by OSPI and the governor, and hopes the district isn’t the one to test the state’s power.
“The discussion from a lot of people is that they don’t consider it law, but that’s the $10,000 question,” Davis said, adding later: “My preference would be to not have Onalaska be the test case, but that could be a board decision.”
The school board will host another workshop on Wednesday, Aug. 18. A decision on policy won’t be made until the board’s next regular meeting, which is slated for Monday, Aug. 23.
School for the district starts back up on Aug. 31.