PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Alsea School District is losing federal funding after the school board voted to do away with mask requirements — violating state mask regulations for schools, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
Alsea Superintendent Marc Thielman, a republican running for governor, announced on January 21, that the school board unanimously approved the resolution “which declares an ‘effective return of local Health and Safety Decision-Making’ commensurate with Governor Brown’s June 25, 2021 recovery order,” Thielman said.
The resolution makes wearing masks optional for staff, teachers and students, except while riding buses.
Thielman noted that if parent’s want their students to wear a mask, they will still be supported and the district will have zero tolerance for mask shaming.
“This means parents must decide if they wish for their child to be masked when at school, both inside or outside. If you decide that you want your child to wear a mask they will be fully supported, to include provision of masks free of charge by the Alsea School District,” Thielman explained.
Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill sent a letter to Thielman on Tuesday explaining the state will withhold federal COVID relief funding until the district puts the mask mandate back in place.
“The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER I, II & III) funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) the American Rescue Plan (ARP) requires school districts to comply with all state laws and regulations,” Gill said in the letter.
Gill continued “due to the posted statement of willful noncompliance, ODE will not process any reimbursement requests for ESSER I, II and III eligible expenditures for Alsea School District at this time.”
In order for Alsea School District to receive the funds, ODE said the district must send a letter by January 31 to the department explaining how the district will comply with state mandates.
While the resolution went into effect January 24, Thielman announced January 23 that school will be closed on January 24 and January 25 due to staff shortages as omicron cases start to peak in the district — which has about 150 students total in kindergarten through grade 12.
“Omicron is reaching its peak in our school/communities, and currently it has created the perfect storm between staff positive cases, quarantine needs due to some one in the household being positive, as well as many Preschool and Daycare closures necessitating too many staff absences for us to safely operate school tomorrow,” Thielman said.
Gill told KOIN 6 that ODE does not support the district’s decision amid the threat of the omicron variant.
“The Oregon Health Authority has been clear that with the Omicron Variant currently surging Oregon to its highest COVID-19 rates that if schools hold indoor activities without universal masking they should expect rapid transmission of COVID-19 that will prevent students from participating in in-person learning due to isolation for those that contract COVID-19 and quarantines for those that come into close contact with infected individuals,” Gill said.
On Tuesday, the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OROSHA) said it’s investigating and could issue fines up to $135,000 for a willful violation of a safety rule.
OROSHA has already cited the school district for violating the mask requirement earlier in January. KOIN 6 reached out to school board members and the superintendent for comment.
Gill told KOIN 6 that one school district has been fined for violating Oregon mask rules. “We are aware of one district that has been found willfully out-of-compliance with the face covering rules. Adrian School District in Malheur County was issued a significant fine from OROSHA and has since come back into compliance,” Gill said.