Tensions over masking at school board meeting
Last updated 8/11/2021 at Noon
The boardroom at the Sisters School District office was packed with over 30 citizens for the monthly meeting held Wednesday, August 4. Most were there to express their opposition of the recent mask mandate for K-12 students handed down by Governor Kate Brown two days earlier.
Twelve of those in attendance spoke during the community comment portion of the meeting, addressing concerns about masks along with the issues of critical race theory, bullying, and Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Board members in attendance included Jeff Smith, Edie Jones, Don Hedrick, and David Thorsett. Jenica Cogdill was absent.
After a robust recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, Board Chair Don Hedrick opened the meeting for community comments, which filled the first half of the hour-long meeting. Most of the comments centered on Brown’s announcement that took place a few days earlier.
In a statement Thursday, July 29, Brown said, “The science and data are clear: the Delta variant is in our communities, and it is more contagious. My priority is to ensure our kids are able to safely return to full-time, in-person learning this fall, five days per week and with minimal disruptions. With many children still ineligible to be vaccinated, masks are an effective way to help keep our kids safe in the classroom, the learning environment we know serves them best.”
A brief letter from Superintendent Curt Scholl sent out to parents Monday August 2, following Brown’s announcement, said, “With the rise of the Delta variant, Governor Kate Brown announced last week that the mask requirement will again be required at the start of this school year. Although we are not excited about this requirement, we are grateful our students will be in school every day.”
Together these statements raised the ire of a vocal group of attendees to the meeting.
Rodney Cooper, a recent candidate for the school board who has grandchildren in Sisters schools, spoke first and asked the board three questions, including how many school-aged children had died in Oregon of COVID-19, whether the Board had read any articles from pediatricians and child psychologists about the dangers of wearing masks, and whether the Board was making decisions “out of fear of this unjust government.”
Amy Larrabee, a mother of students in the district, said that Oregon’s “resilience framework is advisatory (sic) and not a requirement.” She quoted from Scholl’s letter, pointing to the word requirement as being misleading. “You guys have a choice to make that affects all of our children — their mental well-being, their physical well-being, and who they are as people growing up in our community.”
She cited a letter from Crook County’s school district addressed to the governor, which argued that, after a summer of serving over 1,000 students in summer school programs with no cases or spread of the virus, that district was urging Brown to let local districts make their own decisions.
Larrabee cautioned the Board to consider how much money the district would lose if families pulled their children out of school over the mask issue, eliciting cheers and comments of agreement from the crowd.
“We are the taxpayers here and we have a choice to make,” she concluded.
Stephanie Meadows of Sisters, who said she had no children in the District, accused the Board of not performing due diligence.
“What appalls me,” she said, “is that I gave all of you board members information last year that could be researched, and those children were still masked every damn day. Do you have any idea what harm you did every day they had a mask on? You have no clue because you haven’t done any research. That’s my message. Stop torturing these children. They are defenseless. Do your homework.”
Board Member David Thorsett, who attended the meeting via Zoom, challenged the assertion that the Board did not know what it was talking about and that members had not spent time studying the issue.
Thorsett said, “Once this dialogue becomes us versus them and once we start to throw dirt at each other...I heard people say we haven’t done our research and don’t know what we are talking about...those of you saying these things have absolutely no idea what you are saying.”
He continued, saying, “To suggest that we are not thinking about this and that we are not involved in this ongoing discussion is way off base. We are elected officials and we are doing our doggone best to try to support the process of educating kids here in Sisters in the best, safest way possible, and also a way that upholds the Constitution and all the things that have been discussed tonight. This conversation is far from over, but let’s not dig our heels in so hard that we can’t continue to talk. Do not suggest that we are not doing our very best, because we are.”
Scott Stuart, a Redmond resident, spoke at length and did not pull punches when sharing his opinion of the governor.
“First of all Kate Brown looks at the Constitution like it is a roll of toilet paper. She treats statutory law like it’s garbage. She doesn’t pay attention to it.”
He claimed that masks restrict oxygen concentration levels to dangerous levels that violate Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.
Stuart continued, “I have to take issue with your letter, Curt, when you said we got this new Delta variant. Next month it will be the Venus variant or the Mars variant. This is not going to stop because we have a governor who is a despot. She is tyrannical and she is an out-of-control public servant.”
Stuart warned the Board, “You better pay attention because you poked mama bear and her cubs are in the school district. I look at everyone in the State...State agents, media, OSHA, OLCC, ODE, court systems….I look at all these people who are in these state agencies and they are hyenas….They are mocking us. This isn’t about a corona variant, it is about communism.”
He finished with another warning to the Board, suggesting that they could be held individually and jointly liable for gross negligence “if one of these children gets a medical injury or a physical injury (from being forced to wear a mask).
“Do the right thing as a board, reverse this or you will have we the people, on this side of the state of Oregon, to deal with.”
Ed Owens of Sisters spoke fervently on all three topics. “These mask mandates are completely unlawful and unnecessary and there is no science. And these masks the kids wear don’t protect them from anything. CRT (critical race theory) does not belong in the school. You are brainwashing Marxist ideology into our children. We started out tonight with the Pledge of Allegiance and that is under threat because of this Marxist ideology that you guys are pushing on the kids. Mathematics has nothing to do with ethnicity or anything else. It is gender-neutral and it is blind. But you are all having your teachers taking classes this summer like ‘Mathematics for Social Justice.’”
Scholl told The Nugget that Sisters School District is not having teachers take any such training this summer.
Owens went on, saying, “You are teaching about equity and equity studies. Folks, equity is not in our Constitution and not in our Bill of Rights. It is not in our Declaration of Independence and it is not principled underneath the law. We have equality. Equality of access not outcome. Equity is an attempt to divide. It has become oppressors and oppressed. But our children are not oppressing anybody.
“...[B]ringing this stuff into our classrooms and poisoning our children’s minds... that is not your job. You don’t have that right. And neither does Comrade Brown over in Salem have the right to push her agenda into our school district. Whether it is masks or whether it is critical race theory.”
Ronni Moore has a sophomore at Sisters High and said she plans to pull him if masks are required and bullying issues are not addressed.
“I will not have a dime come to Sisters,” she said.
Another parent, Russ Smith, said he wanted to echo much of what had been said before him and that he would not have his student attend if masks are required.
“This should be a choice,” he said.
Mandi Moore has two kids in the District and said, “They will not be wearing masks. Curt Scholl, you should be ashamed of yourself. You should be standing up for us, but all you are doing is telling us what we have to do. That’s not going to happen anymore. We as a community are now standing together and we are standing against you. You need to understand that.”
She touched on other topics as well. “Everything needs to be equal in this school district. This BLM does not belong in this school district. This sexual teachings of transgender should not be taught in our schools, ever. The fact that our children are suffering with carbon monoxide poisoning that is choking our children because of masks is sickening and you should be ashamed of yourselves. I voted for each of you and I am telling you what, I might be able to run for Sisters School District.”
Sara Johnson of Sisters gave a rundown of her family’s extensive military background before saying, “I am [expletive] ashamed. Ashamed that this government is not allowing choice. That is what this is about is choice. The choice for our families, the choice for our children. And it is not a requirement. So please don’t call it one. And if you would like to make it a requirement, sir, (indicating Scholl) say that you do. Do not take the choice away for our families, for our children. If people want to wear masks then wear them.”
The final speaker supported mask-wearing if it meant having kids in school.
Asa Sarvel of Sisters said, “I am not excited about masks, but as opposed to not having my kids in school, I am for masks. I just wanted you to know there is another side to this community, too.”
After finishing, audience members began to ask Sarvel questions and make sharp comments about his opinion, leading him to say, “I don’t understand. I thought this was going to be an open forum, not where people were going to chastise other people. I am just saying there is another side to it — I am not for it — but if the option is not having school, then this is a small, in my opinion, a small compromise. Hopefully this thing goes away and this mandate is lifted.”
After the public commentary Scholl responded from his perspective as a parent as well as the superintendent.
He said, “To think that I am not concerned about the safety of our children, I am. This is not an easy decision or dialogue by any means.”
He went on to explain the many things he has done over the past year or more, advocating for the schools in Sisters, and reminded the audience that our K-3 students were in school in person all year last year with restrictions in place.
“I hear you one hundred percent, please understand that,” he said. “This (mask requirement) is not necessarily a done deal. As we learned from last year, things change.
“I am equally concerned about what I have heard about bullying and the other issues brought up tonight.”
Audience members continually commented and interrupted as Scholl was trying to make his comments. When Board Member Edie Jones referred to recent news reports of higher levels of children being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19, a number of members of the audience vocally objected, calling out “Fake news,” “Underlying conditions,” “That’s not true,” and “What channel are you watching?”
Before proceeding to the rest of the agenda an audience member suggested the Board hold a community forum to continue the discussion.
Scholl thanked the visitors for sharing and attending the meeting and proceeded with a brief report including news that the District has tentatively offered a contract to an engineering and architecture firm, BRLB, for the new elementary school project. He also reported that rather than using late-start Wednesdays for professional development, the District is moving to early release on Fridays for the 2021-22 school year.
Scholl’s final announcement involved the official hiring of seven staff members and the acceptance of the resignation of teachers Julie Patton and Matt Bradley.
Before closing, Scholl said, “We need to continue to hear the feedback, but from my seat right now, making sure we are alive all year, with our kids in school, is the most important aspect.”
The next school board meeting will stray from its normal pattern and is scheduled for Wednesday, September 8 at 6 p.m., rather than the first Wednesday of the month.