A new order requiring face masks for students and staff at local schools took hold on Monday – and impacts summer classes. State Rep. Mark Owens and state Sen. Lynn Findley are insisting local school leaders remain in control of decisions that respond to the pandemic.
State legislators representing Malheur County are pushing back on the state’s mandate that everyone in schools must wear masks now. They are asking for community town halls and one legislators wants Gov. Kate Brown to suspend the order.
State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, said the state should leave decisions on Covid protocols to local school boards and districts. He wants Brown to suspend the state’s order on Monday that masks are required now for all indoor school functions, including summer school.
In a written response to questions, Findley said Wednesday morning that he wants the mandate reversed.
“Governor Brown should allow each school district in full collaboration with local public health authorities to make a local decision on mask mandates in schools,” Findley wrote to the Enterprise.
Owens and state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, reacted to Brown’s order in a letter to her on Tuesday, Aug. 3, asking her to show the science behind the mandate. They noted that a top state official said there was no evidence that schools were a source of spreading the coronavirus.
“We remain consistent in our positions that our local school districts in conjunction with local public health authorities continue to have the best pulse on their communities and should ultimately be the arbiters of mask policies and mandates,” Owens and Findley wrote in their letter.
”I have been consistently opposed to top-down one-size-fits-all mandates and I believe each school district should make their own determination on what’s best,” Findley told the Enterprise. “I have been an advocate for doing everything we can to slow the spread of Covid-19 and I trust our local authorities to make those decisions.”
State education and health officials explained to school officials and state legislators on Monday that they were acting to impose the mandate because of rapid increases in Covid cases across the state, including the delta variant.
“This rule took effect on August 2, 2021, meaning summer school and other summer programming students and staff are now required to wear face coverings,” the state Education Department said in a statement. “Quite simply, face coverings mean more days in school for more students.”
In their letter, Findley and Owens asked the governor to convene town halls to explain the new rules – and the risk educators face if they don’t follow the mandates.
“The listening sessions would be a two-way conversation where the governor and ODE have to take ownership of this mandate, present the science to back it up, explain the details and implications of the mandate, and have public conversations to hear from community members,” Findley told the Enterprise.
The Education Department said any school violating the mandate could be fined up to $500 a day. The agency also noted that state law requires educators to “maintain the dignity of the profession by respecting and obeying the law” and those who violate state standards could be subject to “discipline for gross neglect of duty.”
Owens said that for now educators should comply with the mandate because they are “at high risk of losing their license” if they don’t.
He said in an interview Wednesday that he wants Brown to suspend her order until town halls can be conducted to gather community sentiment. He said those should happen in the next two weeks.
The legislators in their letter asked the governor to disclose what science was used to justify the mandate.
“We all agree our students cannot suffer another year without in-person instruction. We also agree the health and safety of Oregonians must be a top priority. We now need to agree that building public trust through transparency and providing information before regulation will be key to slowing and eventually stopping the spread of COVID-19 and its variants,” they wrote.