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School district defies state orders, makes masks optional for classrooms

<i>KCRA</i><br/>Harold Kaler
Harold Kaler

By Kandra Kent

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    ALSEA, Oregon (KPTV) — Fined, reprimanded, under investigation — but not budging. Going forward, the Alsea School District west of Corvallis will make masks optional in classrooms.

The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education said the district’s policy violates state rules requiring masks for everyone age five and up.

It comes even as the small district’s two schools were closed Monday and Tuesday to in-person learning due to staffing challenges related to COVID-19.

District Superintendent, Marc Thielman, who is also vying for the Republican ticket in a run for governor, said he came up with the new policy at the request of the school board.

The board then unanimously approved the policy on January 13 to allow masks to be optional, except on school buses where face coverings will still be required.

The new requirement was set to take effect Monday.

“We have a school board that said enough is enough we need local control back because the guidance we’re being told to follow isn’t working for Omicron,” Thielman said in an interview with FOX 12, Tuesday.

Thielman said most parents, students and staff support the district’s new policy.

“I think the feedback we’ve been given is predominately positive, about seven out of 10,” said Thielman in an interview with FOX 12, Tuesday.

At least some of the district’s teachers are opposed to making masks optional.

A letter sent to Thielman and the board from the Alsea Education Association said it doesn’t support the policy change and that the union wasn’t consulted in the matter by the board ahead of time.

The letter said in part:

“It is with heavy hearts that we find the need to write a letter such as this. We love our school and our community members. We find ourselves in the very precarious position of having to follow the law while at the same time having to watch many who will ignore the law – based on your unlawful policy change – and not say anything, per your policy.”

A representative of the education association declined an interview.

Board Chair Ron Koetz said the board started getting pushed to drop mask requirements after the local hospital system, Samaritan Health Services, started requiring medical-grade face masks like surgical masks, N95s and KN9s at its facilities.

“We’re basing this off the experts saying (other) masks aren’t doing any good, not with this strain of the COVID,” Koetz said by phone.

“We are doing the best for our kids right now that we can,” Koetz added.

Koetz and Thielman pointed to recent media reports and CDC recommendations that specialized N95 masks protect best against the Omicron strain of COVID-19. They say it doesn’t make sense that state rules still allow for other types of masks if the science suggests they don’t work well to prevent infection.

According to the CDC, any mask is better than none and the center recommends people wear the most protective masks as possible that fit well.

Thielman said the Oregon Health Authority just requires a well-fitting mask for students and staff.

“There isn’t a high school in this state maintaining the well-fitting requirement that OHA put on everybody. It’s theater,” Thielman said. “And we need to stop with theater and start with good policy.”

That’s why Thielman said he continues to direct his staff to follow other measures to prevent the spread of the disease: like specialized cleaning, high-grade filtration, keeping windows open, and test-to-stay after COVID exposures.

“The juice isn’t worth the squeeze on masking and it’s efficacy for preventing the spread of Omicron. The things that do have some efficacy, like all the investments we’ve made,” Thielman said.

The Oregon Department of Education sent a letter to district officials warning that it will be withholding COVID-related relief funding for its schools until the district comes back in compliance with mask mandates.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSHA) also told FOX 12 it’s investigating the district after receiving complaints about the new mask optional policy.

The potential for fines or other punishment are still under discussion, OHSA said.

OSHA said it already fined the district earlier this month for violating mask rules before the new year.

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