District Faces Public Outcry Over Fall Reopening Plan

Current DOH Rules Require Face Coverings for Students in School Settings

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Members of a local anti-mask group presented the Yelm School Board with a petition featuring 301 signatures that asked the district to turn down mask-wearing mandates in schools, and to reject critical race theory and comprehensive sexual health education teaching methodologies in the district.

The July 22 meeting was standing-room only, as people filtered into the hallway of the district office from a contingent of people ostensibly from the group serving the petition.

Andrew Greulich, one of the group’s members, announced a bid to challenge the seat of school board member Mark Rohwedder as a write-in candidate in the face of what Greulich called Rohwedder’s failure to protect kids from mask-wearing mandates and other educational initiatives.

Current Washington State Department of Health (DOH) rules require masks or cloth facial coverings for staff and students in school settings, where students are present indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

During the meeting, Superintendent Brian Wharton presented the district’s fall reopening plan, taken directly from guidelines passed down from the DOH.

Some community members disrupted the presentation with complaints on multiple occasions as they voiced their displeasure with the reopening plan.

“I don’t personally think that attacking school board members and things like that is appropriate,” Wharton said in an interview with the Nisqually Valley News. “I don’t think anyone has the right to disrupt a public meeting.”

According to Wharton’s presentation, the district plans to enact a full reopening in the fall. It will reinstate the 2019-20 school start and end times, without a K-5 virtual school entity, but with a secondary remote learning option.

In the reopening plan, a daily attestation of health is no longer required for staff and students, but there will be a testing option for those who are presenting symptoms or those who are worried for their health.

While masks are required for students and staff indoors, they are not required outdoors regardless of vaccination status. This differs from current CDC guidelines which allow for vaccinated individuals to forgo wearing masks indoors.

Employees are required to follow Washington State Labor and Industries (L&I) requirements to provide an attestation of vaccination status to forgo wearing masks in areas students are not present.

Physical distancing of 3 feet is required indoors between students whenever possible, with adults remaining at 6 feet of distance.

Strict ventilation requirements will be followed to the maximum capacity of facility HVAC systems and all schools will continue to change filters during the year.

The district will cooperate with Thurston County Public Health and Social Services to contact trace all student and staff COVID-19 cases, reporting all known cases to the health department. The definition of close contact is currently for those within 6 feet of an infected individual for at least 15 minutes within 24 hours.

Thurston County Public Health and Social Services determines which students or staff need to be quarantined and their date of return. However, vaccinated people will not be required to quarantine.

“We don’t think what DOH has published for summer and fall reopening … is the final document that they will publish,” Wharton said in the interview. “I think (it will change) once or twice between now and the opening of school.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, the “Unmask Our Kids” group’s leader Sarah Greulich said DOH guidelines are optional for districts, citing law RCW 28A.320.015, which states a school district can make policy for the sake of effective education and instruction that does not interfere with law.

Sarah Greulich said because the guidelines are not drafted into law, the district has the option to not follow them.

“As a board, you have the right to make masks optional, veto sex (education), make sure the children are not (taught critical race theory), and it is your job to protect and educate our kids,” she said. “You are currently failing all of our families.”

DOH Public Information Officer Ginny Streeter said in an email to the Nisqually Valley News that the guidelines are not optional.

“All school districts in the state are required by the governor’s proclamation to follow/use the most up-to-date COVID-19 school guidance,” Streeter wrote. “The guidance set forth by the state outlines the minimum requirements for school districts. However, the school district, school board, local health jurisdiction and local health officer do have the authority to enact stricter guidance.”

After allegedly talking to L&I and the DOH, Sarah Greulich said the agencies confirmed for her that following the guidelines is essentially an option for districts.

Streeter said she inquired about the contents of a possible conversation between Sarah Greulich and DOH.

“I reached out to our assistant secretary for COVID-19 response regarding some individuals claiming at a school board meeting that DOH personnel told them that the mask guidance is optional,” Streeter said. “She states that she is not aware of any instance where DOH employees stated that the mask guidance is optional.”

Sarah Greulich said the consequences of not following the guidelines amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

“I don’t think you guys understand the repercussions of what will happen if you turn this down,” she said at the meeting. “So, after speaking to them and their legal team, the only repercussion you could possibly have is possible fines.”

Wharton explained that’s not the case. He said district personnel could be charged with a gross misdemeanor if the guidelines are not followed because of a governor’s proclamation, which enforced DOH guidelines.

“If we were to go counter to the department of health and Labor and Industries, the district, as a group, could face penalty and individuals could face penalty,” Wharton said. “It goes beyond being cited for a gross misdemeanor. It opens the district up to any type of suit that someone is claiming they got sick from COVID because we didn’t follow the regulations. And that is a massive concern. … We could lose our protections under insurance by disregarding department of health and Labor and Industries guidelines.”

Sarah Greulich said the district has fallen down on its job.

“You have given in to the pressure from the teacher’s unions, Jay Inslee, L&I, local doctors, state and local DOH, (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and the government,” she said.

Wharton said in the interview it’s common sense to follow the guidelines of experts.

“Our position throughout the whole pandemic is that we’re going to follow the guidance of public health officials,” he said. “That’s their job, is to know the science and know the data and make those rules. And we follow them.”

Furthermore, Sarah Greulich said kids are not “super-spreaders” and masks do not filter out particles as small as those that carry the COVID-19 virus.

The DOH says a mask’s roll is to filter out droplets that carry the virus.

Public commenter Christina Jackson said she told her child to sneak breaths by pulling down his mask during school because he had trouble breathing since he wasn’t allowed to take it off.

“I won’t do that this year,” Jackson said. “I cannot put him through that.”

Concerns about the effects of mask-wearing on children’s physical and psychological health were also raised.

Wharton said he is disheartened by the alleged misinformation being spread.

“I don’t believe that people are being held accountable for their untrue statements in this,” he said in the interview. “I think that (the district is) trying to provide as much true information as we can. There’s a lot of misinformation.”

Throughout the meeting, attendees said the district was not listening to them.

“I think they absolutely were listened to,” Wharton said. “There’s a difference between being listened to and getting what you want. … I don’t think we’re going to find a lot of people that like wearing masks. I don’t. But I think they were definitely listened to, and that’s why the board directed me to consult our legal counsel, to consult our risk management group, to consult state associations (and) to consult other districts.

“We did that because we listened. We just came to a different point of view … (and) we’re at a different position than what that group is trying to persuade us to take.”

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