Richland School District facing both support and pushback in light of mask ruling, some arguing it’s legality

RICHLAND, WA – Masks are still mandated to be worn indoors and in schools according to Governor Inslee’s mandate. However, Richland School District’s special board meeting decided differently.

“Governor Inslee says it’s time to transition to a post pandemic state – it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.” said Semi Bird, RSD board member and Legislative Representative. Bird brought the motion to vote to end the mask mandate in RSD schools Wednesday.

“I brought the motion because people are tired of wearing masks. We believe in choice and the desire to help children’s overall mental health. We believe the masks are doing more harm than good.” said Bird.

Kari Williams and Audra Byrd voted yes, while Rick Jansons and president of the board Jill Oldson voted no.

“I just have been so worried about the children in our community and the families really struggling right now, so we just want to give the choice back to the families to have the choice to remove their masks.” said Byrd.

Approximately 100 people showed up to a rally this morning outside of Richland School District’s office to show support for the board’s decision.

However, Oldson says the board doesn’t even have the power to actually enforce this new ruling.

“We cannot supersede the mandates of the state government. I took an oath of office, to uphold the state laws that are implemented. It doesn’t matter my personal opinion or desire; it is not in my authority to supersede the decision of the legislation in government or the Department of Health.” said Oldson.

Under Proclamation 20-09.4 by Governor Inslee written in light of the state of emergency in Washington due to COVID, this proclamation lays out the mandate 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.”

While Semi Bird expressed he doesn’t feel they are in violation of the law since a mandate is different from a law passed by the House and Senate, Oldson and the Superintendent Office of Public Instruction, or OSPI, believe differently.

The Proclamation, as well as RCW 42.30.080 under the Washington State School Directors Association, states that in a state of emergency, the mandates (including the mask mandate in schools) must be followed as laws.

“By them knowingly and deliberately breaking the law, which is what some board members did, they risk losing their certification, and we know that the funding can be withheld. Plus, now kids miss out on another day of school.” said Oldson.

Emergency rule from the OSPI says that any school district that willfully violates the state mask mandate will be withheld from district funds.

Kayu Payne, speaking on behalf of OSPI stated the following:

“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.

We issued a first notice to Richland School District earlier this morning. We hope the district will do the right thing for their students, staff, and families and adhere to the law, as they have a responsibility to do so.”

Payu confirmed that OSPI issued the first notice to Richland School District this morning.

Additionally, Oldson stated that the validity of this ruling may have been outside the legality of what is allowed in a special board meeting.

School district board meetings have to publish their agenda to the public before making decisions based upon the framework written under Washington State School Directors Association’s policy in RCW 42.30.080. Anything discussed outside of that published agenda is considered not allowed or valid.

In RSD’s Wednesday agenda, under “Executive Sessions,” and “New Business,” there is nothing published nor written about discussing the mask mandate.

“I did not run this meeting, the Vice President, Kari Williams, did. They did not publish on the agenda that they would be making the motion to vote on this mandate, which is why I question if this ruling is actually void now.” said Oldson.

“We have informed boards of what is their local decision and what is not. Masking has concisely been one where school boards do not have the legal authority to decide whether folks need to wear masks in schools, that is a decision made by the department of health and governor’s office.” said Tim Garchow, Executive Director of Washington State School District Association (WSSDA).

The governor is set to address the indoor mask mandate on Thursday.

When asked what will the board have to do in order to comply with state law, Bird said the following:

“If the governor says we have to keep masks in schools, then we will cross that bridge when we get there about reaching a compromise.” said Bird.

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