Richland school board considers next steps after surprise ‘mask choice’ vote shuts down the district

RICHLAND, Wash. — After Tuesday’s special meeting of the Richland School Board where members voted to make the wearing of face coverings in district schools and facilities optional, the district shut down on Wednesday to figure out its next steps.

Board members Kari Williams, Audra Byrd, and Semi Bird all voted yes while Rick Jansons and Board President Jill Oldson dissented.

According to Oldson, she was taken aback by the vote.

ORIGINAL STORY: Richland School Board votes to make masks optional, OSPI prepares notice to withhold funding

“I have to say, I was pretty taken off guard. There have been conversations across the board in the districts but for it to be brought up in that meeting in that manner, yes, I was very surprised,” Oldson said.

During the vote, Jansons expressed his disapproval of how the vote came about.

“I went out of my way to make the executive session happen. There was no discussion that there was going to be an agenda item on this,” Jansons said. “I got ambushed at this meeting so there is a lack of trust. There is broken trust.”

Jansons added that he was “strenuously voting no.”

“The ramifications of this are personal to the people who vote yes because you’re woefully and knowingly violating the law. You’re violating oaths of office in my opinion,” Jansons said. “We are directing staff to violate the law which I think is illegal for us to do so I’m a no.”

READ: Richland Schools issue emergency closure for Feb. 16 following mask vote

Despite cheers breaking out in the room from the audience after the vote passed, Oldson said it might not actually be legitimate.

Topics for special meetings are supposed to be posted 24 hours in advance. The agendas must also be public before making decisions under the state. Anything discussed in the meeting that is not on the agenda is considered invalid or not allowed.

Mike Faulk, Gov. Inslee’s press secretary, provided KAPP-KVEW with this statement:

“This action has no impact on the state’s masking requirements. School boards are not empowered to supersede state law. Any debate about masks in this pandemic should be centered on science. The science tells us masks work. They are an easy way for people to keep each other safe. Throughout the pandemic, they have helped reduce infection in congregate settings where people have lower vaccination rates, including schools.”

“We take an oath when we join the board that says we will uphold the rules of the state of Washington,” Oldson said. “Legislation had already given the governor authority to make emergency proclamations. There’s very little difference between a mandate and a law. So based on the fact that is the state that our state of Washington is in right now, we have to follow those laws. So in my personal opinion, yes, I believe it’s a violation of an oath.”

Governor Inslee’s Proclamation 20-09.4 mandates that “everyone including those people who are fully vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in public locations of substantial-high transmission of the virus and universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to k-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.”

“Even though the board members decide to cast a vote that says no more masks, teachers are certified in the state, and superintendents are certified in the state. If they break those state laws they risk losing their certification,” Oldson said.

Oldson said she wants parents and students to know that she does understand potential frustrations.

“When you’re dealing with people’s children’s lives and such, it’s your most prized possession in the whole world and you’re going to fight and do whatever you think is in your power to make sure they’re treated fairly. The frustrating part is whether I agree with the mandates or not it doesn’t matter because I’m held accountable as a public official to uphold the law of the state,” Oldson said. “I think it’s important for the community to understand that it’s not the district who made these decisions. It’s individual board members that made these decisions… Those individual board members need to be held accountable for their decisions.”

The Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) told KAPP-KVEW they have sent the first notice to the district as part of their emergency rule process:

You will note that the process begins with an official notice to the district. After 15 days, if the issue is not corrected and the district doesn’t take a corrective action, OSPI would issue a second notice. The district would then have 5 days to issue a corrective action. If the district does not provide verification of compliance within those 5 additional days, OSPI would withhold the district’s subsequent monthly apportionment payment for the month outlined in the second notice. If the district still does not take corrective action after OSPI withholds payment of two monthly apportionment cycles, OSPI would reduce the district’s funding proportionately until corrective action is taken.

For more details on the process, click here.

READ: Anti-mandate freedom rally met with counterprotesters in Richland

Even though there are concerns about the vote’s legality, hundreds of people participated in a ‘Mask Choice’ rally at the Richland School District’s office Wednesday morning to voice their opinions on what the district should do moving forward.

For Tara Smith, a mother of two, it’s an easy answer.

“I think it should be a freedom of choice. I think they’re our children and we should have the right to send them to school with a mask or not,” Smith said. “It feels great to hear that our community is rallying around us now and that we will hopefully make some changes. I’m encouraging people to write the Department of Health, to write Jay Inslee’s office, to write your legislators, to write anybody in the state who will listen at this point, that we need to move forward and we need a change in our state.”

Lee and Jami DaRoss, who describe themselves as ‘concerned’ grandparents, agreed with Smith noting that people should be able to make their own choices.

“The school districts have to stand up for the people and if people don’t want masks then they should just go that way,” Lee DaRoss said.

Jami added that “if you’re not feeling comfortable, wear a mask but it shouldn’t be forced on the rest of us.”

However, for Dusty Howard, a registered nurse in Richland, the debate is “infuriating.”

“There are so many implications not just with three school board members challenging a state mandate at the state level. There are many medical professionals. These are physicians and doctors and nurses with epidemiology backgrounds,” Howard said. “This is not a personal choice.”

Howard said the actions of some of the board members are “appalling.”

“I don’t understand why these people think that without a medical background, they can advise the public on matters of general health. If I were to do something and advise the public outside of my scope of practice I could be held liable for practicing medicine without a license. How come they aren’t?” Howard said. “I am disgusted. I have never in my entire life of my 21-year nursing career been given so much backlash by my own community. The same community that depended on me to help save their lives, or to get them through a situation is now telling me that I have no idea what I’m talking about with masks. I am dumbfounded.”

Howard said as we’re over two years into the pandemic, her frustration continues to skyrocket.

“There is only one way a respiratory virus gets into somebody’s system and that is through the respiratory system, the mouth, and the nose,” Howard said. “The Richland School Board needs to defer all matters of community health to the Benton County Health District and the Benton County Health District needs to follow their protocol with the state.”

Howard added that one of the most important things to remember is that this is bigger than just one person.

“Everybody’s always talking about their rights and their personal choice. What about your social obligation? We live in a community and we eat and breathe and share this community,” Howard said. “Together, we are better as a whole. If we are concerned with the whole of us, we must remember that society was created because we care about each other.”

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