Hundreds gather outside S-K district offices to protest mask requirements in schools

Parents, students and others gather alongside Lancaster Drive in Salem to protest mask mandates. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)

Over 200 people gathered outside of the Salem-Keizer School District offices on Tuesday morning to protest ongoing mask mandates within schools. The rally’s attendees, who stood along Lancaster Drive, held signs and waved American flags as cars drove by — with some honking in support.

Jenny Maguire, an event organizer and former Salem-Keizer teacher, said in a Feb. 4 email to the Keizertimes that the rally was to protest permanent mask mandates in schools and to advocate for mask-choice within schools. 

While the protest had been planned since last week, it came one day after the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) announced that mask requirements would be lifted within schools no later than March 31.

“By late March, health scientists expect that about 400 or fewer Oregonians would be hospitalized with COVID-19, the level of hospitalizations the state experienced before the Omicron variant began to spread. Mask requirements for schools will be lifted on March 31,” read a Feb. 7 press release from OHA.

Even with the OHA announcement, Maguire wrote in an email Monday night that the rally was still happening and that OHA’s announcement “was not a win for Salem/Keizer.”

At the Feb. 8 rally, Mandy Breitenstein, an event organizer and mother of five, said that parents should be able to “choose what is best for our children as individuals.”

“Salem-Keizer (School District) has not said anything about pulling back a mask policy. And so if anything, that makes our job more important, our voices need to be louder because our kids are at risk here and there’s nothing more important than our children,” said Breitenstein, who is also a former Salem-Keizer teacher. She resigned in October of 2021 after 14 years in the district due to vaccine mandates. 

Protestors outside district offices on Feb. 8 (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)

The Salem-Keizer School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment. OHA’s press release said the mask requirements in schools will be lifted on March 31 “to give school districts time to prepare.” 

COVID cases within Salem-Keizer schools have fallen in recent weeks after peaking in early January. For the week ending on Jan. 22, 712 students and staff contracted COVID in Salem-Keizer schools. Last week, that number dropped to 61 students and staff.

While the rally was advertised as being “not political and not anti-mask,” it was widely advertised on the social media pages of groups such as Timber Unity and FreeOregon, an active anti-vaccine and anti-mask group. 

Angela Todd, the chief communications officer for FreeOregon, said the group helped put the word out for the rally. She said that even with the OHA announcement yesterday, there are no “guarantees” the mask mandate will be lifted.

Protestors hold signs along Lancaster Drive. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)