INDEPENDENCE — With clear guidance from the state, the Central School District is juggling implementing the renewed mandate that students must wear masks back to school this fall and satiating outcries from the community on both sides of the issue.
On Aug. 3, the Oregon Health Authority issued new statewide rules requiring face coverings in all indoor school settings, both public and private, for students, staff, contractors, volunteers and visitors. Masks will not be required outdoors.
However, as much as board members would like to clearly assert their stance on the mask mandate, liability issues are forcing them to remain neutral and silent for now.
Board member frustrations boiled over at their Aug. 10 meeting when told if they did not hold their tongues, they and the school district could face penalties not just from the state, but also from their insurer.
Board member Jannice Jobe said she was “absolutely appalled” of the possibility of free speech restrictions.
“It is somehow chilling. I may not agree with what people are saying, but they have a right to say it,” Jobe said. “It feels slightly insidious. Because I speak my mind pretty freely at these board meetings, as does every other board member. That’s our job, to examine policy. Nobody in this room is blamable, or any way culpable, of trying to stifle free speech.”
When her colleague Darcy Kirk asked what the liability is the school district faces if a student or teacher refuses to wear a mask, Superintendent Jennifer Kubista laid out the three liability issues facing CSD.
First, she said, was the penalty standpoint.
“Should a school have students or staff member, refuse the mandate, it could be $500 a day per school fee,” Kubista said. “We’re still getting clarification. There’s still moving pieces. Is it per student or per building? Our understanding is by building. So, (violations in) five buildings is $2,500 a day.”
Secondly, Kubista said their insurer, Teachers Standard and Practice, who provides the licensure for superintendents, building administrators and teaching staff, could potentially suspend or revoke their licenses.
“That’s a big thing because we cannot do our work if our licenses are revoked or suspended,” Kubista said.
Lastly, she explained the reasoning behind placing what is essentially a gag order on school board members due to liability issues.
“Thirdly, they were very clear to us if boards chose to make a motion to not have masks, and anybody makes a statement or speaks toward that, and a student gets significantly sick or dies, then board members could be held personally liable for that,” Kubista said. “Our liability insurers and attorneys are saying that. It’s not the state saying that.”
Newly elected board member Byron Shinkle expressed his frustration with the perception that goalposts are constantly being moved and neither the state nor their insurers are offering data driven end points that local school boards then can defend in either direction.
“At this point, people’s anxiety is raised partly by the fact we don’t even know what we’re shooting for. There’s this nebulous wear a mask and it will solve all problems,” Shinkle said. “Right, wrong or indifferent, it would be nice to have some evidence that that is actually the case. So, the people in this room can go out and defend the position, without saying I don’t know why we have to wear a mask.”
Kubista explained that at the end of July, their regular guidance under the Ready School Safe Learners was renamed the Resiliency Framework, which focuses on students’ and staffs’ health, safety and equity. The mask mandate was just one tool in their toolbox to keep everyone safe as they go back to in-person instruction.
“The tools we have include vaccination, which is new for ages 12 and older, protective equipment (face coverings and barriers), physical distancing, hand hygiene, airflow and circulation, cohorts, isolation and quarantining and environmental cleaning and disinfecting,” Kubista explained.
“Schools are still the most unvaccinated setting,” she added. “Because there is not that availability, it is only one tool in our toolbox. This rule aligns with CDC, ODE, OHE and American Pediatric Association.”
Her explanation was not enough to assuage neither Shinkle’s nor his constituent’s frustration.
“The actuaries at the liability insurance, whoever is covering us for insurance, would have to have some numbers there. If they are going to go so far as chill free speech, in these sessions where we can’t advocate one way or the other, you’d think they’d have some hard data that justifies such a gag order on school boards statewide,” Shinkle said.
Kubista also explained how the mask mandate will extend into athletics and after school activities.
She said because students are required by law to be in school, therefore athletics and activities are an extension of the school day. However, Kubista added the decision to wear masks or not in these activities has been left up to local districts.
“I’ve spoken with school administrations, athletic directors in the league. We’re still working toward a final decision about indoor mask wearing. We’re still in conversation in what this will look like. We still have as optional approach,” Kubista said, adding the indoor mandate for sports will only apply this fall to volleyball.
“We continue to consult about K-12 before and after school Expanded Learning, especially since K-5 is largest population that does not have access to the tool of vaccinations,” she said.
In the meantime, Kubista said the school district is now given weekly tracking of the COVID numbers, rather than the two-week lookbacks. She explained the tracking metrics continue to uptick, which led to Gov. Kate Brown to reinstate the mask mandate. The case rates in Polk County rose from 57.3 per 100,000 and a 5.7 percent test positivity rate on July 11, rose to as of Aug. 1 193.3 per 100,000 and 11.1 percent. In addition, hospitalizations were up to about 80% statewide with about the same rate in Polk County.
Lastly, the age groups most affected have flip-flopped since the outbreak began, with the youngest groups in Polk County now catching it the most. Between July 18-31, ages 0-11 had 42 cases, or 23%, and ages 12-19 had 27 cases, or 15%.
The Polk County vaccination rate as of July 26 for 12-19 year olds stood at 41.9%.