Wahkiakum school board hears concerns about state's mask mandates
August 26, 2021
The Wahkiakum School District Board of Directors moved their meeting outside on Tuesday to accommodate a large group that was there to express their frustrations about a mask mandate issued by Governor Jay Inslee, mostly centered around their lack of freedom to choose.
The board gave each person an opportunity to speak for two minutes. Chair Shawn Merz later explained that the board wanted to hear from the community but were not required to do so after one person complained about the time limit.
Kim Wynn, a registered nurse and the mother of two current students, started public comment with an expression of gratitude.
“Wahkiakum students were able to attend school in person for the majority of the last school year and I’m confident with the plans that have been put in place for the coming school year, that they will be just as successful,” Wynn said. “We know that if we protect ourselves with masks, social distancing, and vaccinations, we also protect our neighbors and the children in our community.”
Shawna Moon, the parent of a senior and sixth grader, had another perspective that seemed to be shared by many in the crowd.
“Why have a local school board if you can’t make local decisions, outside of a state mandate?” Moon asked. “What recourse do we have then? Jay Inslee does not respond …
“We need to make sure that we are educated so that we can do the best thing for children. I’m not asking for zero masks, I’m not asking for a mandate either way. I don’t care what side of the argument you are on. I’m asking for freedom of choice. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask …We don’t have kids coming in everyday from somewhere else, spreading germs. We are local people, we stay local. Let’s make local choices, otherwise, what’s the point.”
Ryan Garrett, who teaches PE and art at Wahkiakum School District, said that he and two other certificated staff, as well as four para-educators would be taking a stand regarding the recent directive issued by the governor, which requires all employees working for public and private K-12 schools to be fully vaccinated or have religious or medical exemption by October 18.
“If the rule does not change come October 18,” Garrett said, “we will be gone. I’m not against the vaccine, I’m for choice. People should be allowed to choose what they want to do, and that’s all I’m asking for is that I get to choose what I want to do with my body.”
Others spoke about critical race theory and sex education.
Via Zoom, Paula O’Malley spoke in support of masks.
“Obviously with the numbers going up, something has to be done,” O’Malley said, “and I hope and pray that we continue making the right choices for our children even though it is uncomfortable for us. I wear my mask every day.”
“But that’s your choice,” people in the crowd began to shout.
When they quieted down, Superintendent Freeman started to outline the district plans for the coming school year, and when it came time to address the mask mandate, he shared two paragraphs from a letter that school districts in the State of Washington received from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdahl, part of which follows: “Boards or districts that intentionally disobey, dismiss, or shun an explicit law, including a governor’s executive order, which has the power of law, will see an immediate halt to their basic education apportionment, and their federal funds that come through OSPI, These critical public health actions, including masking for now, are not at the discretion of local boards or local superintendents.”
“That’s the background on the mask issue from the school director and school superintendent perspective,” Freeman said.
He elaborated on his thoughts a little more as the meeting ended.
“I appreciate your comments and perspectives,” Freeman said. “They are heard. I’ve taken notes. I’m going to write a note and send it up state, because I think that’s the right thing to do.”
“At the end of the day, I want to open up. I want to open up safely,” he said. “I’m never going to err on the side of not having a safe place for your kids, but I’m taking care of more than kids here. I’m taking care of a community, which you know, and you’re voicing, and I respect your opinions, but I’m also taking care of staff. I’ve got 78 people here that depend on this.
“I’ve taken everything that’s come down to us, the little bit that I’ve read and all the other stuff, and I’ve run it by legal review. I don’t think there is a bluff with this. I’m not going to play Russian roulette with staff livelihood, or the community losing this school. I do feel that it’s a little bit of a ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ I don’t like the position I’m in, to be honest. It’s a hard choice, but I do believe that is the right choice. I don’t believe I have a lot of alternatives around a mask or vaccine protocol.”
Freeman said he had been working behind the scene with legal teams, looking for options.
“I think I speak for all six of us sitting up here, that we would like to have that local control, and it’s very clear we don’t,” Freeman said. “If you are asking me to step out of line and risk the kids, the community, and the staff, that’s just not a position that we can be in.”
“I do hope that we can have a dialogue, and I do hope that we get ability to get some of that local control back. If we are granted that, we are ready to move forward with that,” he said.
As for the coming school year, the district plans to return to operations as they were prior to the pandemic. These means students will return in person, five days a week.
Bus transportation will return to normal, with drop offs and pick ups in front of each school, instead of on the School Access Road, Freeman said. There will only be six routes with a normal schedule, instead of the 10 routes they had last year.
“It’ll be a little bit earlier pick up in the morning and little bit later drop off in the afternoons,” Freeman said, “And yes, masks are required for transportation on any and all the buses.”
Hand washing protocols will continue, as students enter the buildings.
“We are going to do our best to stop the transmission with a lot of good hand hygiene,” Freeman said.
They will only require students to do verbal attestations and temperature checks.
A driver will return any student who does not feel well to their home.
“Masks are required while they are indoors at school,” Freeman said.
Normal food services will resume, though they will be splitting K-5 into two lunch sessions to provide maximum social distancing. Students will no longer eat their meals in classrooms.
Custodial duties will return to normal, with a twice a day sanitization of common spaces.
There will be a full opening on sports and volleyball and football practices have already started.
“There will not be heavy handed cohorting like we did last year,” Freeman said. “Obviously that comes with some risk around transmission, but we felt that we could mitigate the rest of this and get kids back onto full electives.”
And just like it was before covid-19, there will be K-8 swim lessons, driver’s ed classes, and a return to music classes.
In other news, the school board approved the hire of Alice Poulson as the middle school science teacher, and Ryan Lorenzo was named the head high school football coach, with Matt Mogush as assistant high school football coach. Stephanie Johnson will be the middle school assistant volleyball coach. The board also accepted Amee Crawford’s resignation, and Lorenzo stepped down from his position as high school wrestling coach.