Protesters line Commercial St. during a Feb. 18 rally against school mask mandates. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)
Over 200 people gathered outside Salem-Keizer School District’s Student Services Center Friday morning to protest mask requirements in the district’s schools. Many of the “Rally for Our Students” protesters stood along Commercial St. in south Salem holding anti-mask signs and waving American flags.
The Feb. 18 rally was the second protest of school mask mandates in two weeks, with a previous rally on Feb. 8 being held outside the school district offices. The location of Friday’s rally, the Student Services Center, has been the location for Salem-Keizer school board meetings in the past.
School board directors Marty Heyen and Danielle Bethell were two of the more prominent attendees at Friday’s rally. Bethell, who is also a Marion County commissioner, was in attendance with her daughter.
“I recognize that (Superintendent Christy Perry’s) hands are somewhat tied with the rulings that have come out from the Oregon Department of Education recently,” Bethell said Friday. “But at the end of the day, she needs to give her building administrators the opportunity to do the jobs they are capable of doing. I believe she needs to take the mask mandate away and give what we consider local control back to the building. She can do it.”
The Oregon Department of Education’s announced on Feb. 7 that the state would lift the statewide school mask mandate on March 31 and return decision making to local school districts and health authorities. Masks have been required in Oregon schools since students returned to in-person classes in March of 2021.
Many of the students, parents and educators at Friday’s rally pushed for the district to end the mask requirement in schools before March 31.
Megan Lippold, a former college and career coach at West Salem High School, said she had left her job and pulled her children from the district due to the mask mandate and vaccine mandate for school staff.
“We’re just passionate about having the choice for masks,” said Lippold. “At this point, I have absolutely zero trust in our governor to say what she means and mean what she says. I think the March 31 date is being used as a carrot to get this group not to come out and voice our opinions.”
Amanda Reyna attended the rally with her three children, who are all students at Washington Elementary in Salem. Reyna said one of her sons was forced to leave school three times for refusing to wear a mask in class.
“I want the mandate to end sooner so my kids can breathe freely. The masks can cause reading issues, slurred speech, lots of issues. It should be up to the students,” Reyna said.
Multiple school districts have defied the state and already made masks optional. After the Molalla River School District was forced to cancel classes on Feb. 18 due to ongoing mask protests, the school board voted the same day to make masking optional as of March 3.
Alsea School District Superintendent Marc Thielman announced in January that masks would be optional in schools going forward. The state responded by withholding federal COVID relief funds until the district became compliant.
School board director Danielle Bethell (third from left) stands along Commercial St. on Feb. 18 with other protesters. (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings)
Both Bethell and rally organizer Jenny Maguire, a former behavior specialist at Scott Elementary in Salem, said the risk of forfeiting relief funds from the state is worth ending mask requirements in Salem-Keizer schools.
“The fact that the federal dollars are attached to COVID protocols is a problem,” Bethell said. “If they were to deny those dollars to the school, some would say kids wouldn’t have access to certain things. But I disagree. I believe that we live in a very comfortable community that provides access to kids in need.”
The Salem-Keizer School District expects to receive $140 million in federal COVID relief funds through September 2023, distributed by the state education department. That money, approved by Congress in several packages, was intended to help cover pandemic-related school expenses like air filters or internet hotspots, and to help kids catch up academically.
Bethell, director of Zone 6, said that the district wouldn’t be breaking any laws by making masks optional before March 31.
“There’s a threat from the state currently that if you don’t follow the laws, their funding would be revoked. They’re not in violation of any federal state or law, it’s just a rule,” said Bethell. “It’s a threat and it’s a situation that the superintendent needs to be cautious of because you have to have money to pay for teachers and staff but to what expense? Whose lives are we really impacting overall in mental health and all the way around?”
Jonathan Modie, spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, said the district would be breaking the law by making masks optional before March 31 and would be subject to a civil penalty of $500 per day per violation.
“They would be breaking the law, and no, there are no loopholes,” Modie said in an email. “Our recommendation is that schools do the right thing for the safety and health of their students, teachers, staff, families and communities and just wait until the mask requirement for schools lifts on March 31.”
During a phone interview on Feb. 18, school board chair Osvaldo Avila echoed what Superintendent Christy Perry has said at previous school board meetings.
“Our superintendent has provided and laid out the steps for us to make a decision. We are awaiting additional guidance from the Oregon Health Authority and we will then make an informed decision on what we will do after March 31,” Avila said.
News tip? Contact reporter Joey Cappelletti at [email protected] or 616-610-3093.