Eastern Washington schools risk state funding loss by ending student mask mandate

(The Center Square) – The Colville and Kettle Falls school districts in Stevens County have removed student masks more than a month before the state lifts the mandate.

The Colville district will…

(The Center Square) – The Colville and Kettle Falls school districts in Stevens County have removed student masks more than a month before the state lifts the mandate.

The Colville district will make masks optional as of Tuesday, Feb. 22. Kettle Falls has already dropped the requirement that students wear facial coverings.

The four Colville board members who voted in favor (the fifth was absent) all ran on a platform of ending masks mandates and were elected by a 52% margin or higher. These individuals are Dave Naff, Joseph Schweitzer, Joe Fazzari and Dr. Robert Gumm.

Putting Students First, a group that campaigned for Naff, Fazzari and Schweitzer, boosted a student protest in Colville on the first day of the 2021-22 academic year in September. Students walked into school without masks and returned to the parking lot after being asked to leave, where they held protests signs.

Colville Superintendent Steve Fisk said Friday that it was not a surprise to have the school board take the vote against mandatory masking given their publicly  stated views. He said the majority of voters agreed with that message and the decision made by their representatives needed to be respected.

“This is the will of the people,” Fisk said. “These are tough times, and this masking challenge has been so big. It has just pulled at our community.”

He said the district will have more information for parents about next steps on Monday.

Fisk said enrollment in public schools is down 4% across Washington due to the lockdowns, masking and social distancing mandates enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Health in 2020.

Although the Colville district lost about 100 students within the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fisk said enrollment has gone back up slightly since then.

“This is going to help gain some students back. Absolutely,” he said.

On Friday, Fisk began meeting with administrative staffers and educators to figure out a plan to implement the board’s decision and deal with the fallout from the state.

“There’s all kinds of dynamics around this,” he said.  “But I feel we have the folks in place to do this productively.”

Less than 24 hours after the board acted, Fisk received a letter from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) warning that state funding could be withheld for failure to comply with Inslee’s mask mandate.

“While it’s difficult at times I need to support my board and I need to help them work through this process,” he said.

Kettle Falls is located about 10 miles west of Colville. The smaller community’s school district dropped the mask mandate altogether on Monday and received its noncompliance notice from the state the next morning.

Kettle Falls Superintendent Michael Olsen told reporters that the district is prepared to use cash reserves if the state withholds money, but can only survive for about four to six weeks.

Inslee is lifting the state’s mask mandate on March 21 with some exceptions. On that date, facial coverings will no longer be required in schools, child care centers, restaurants and bars, churches gyms or retail establishments. Private businesses and local governments that want to require masks for employees, customers or residents can still require them.

The Department of Health will issue updated guidance for K-12 schools the week of March 7.

Schools will still be required to report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks, and to cooperate with public health authorities in responding to these consistent with other communicable diseases.

Students and staff with COVID symptoms will still be required to quarantine away from school buildings. Schools will also have to ensure access to testing for those with symptoms or who have been exposed.

Fisk said testing can still take place at all five Colville schools, and staff will continue to be masked until March 21.

“We’ll work proactively with the state and we’ll work proactively with the families and health department to get through this,” he said.

He said students who have been told for two years that masks made them safer will now have to adjust to a new normal.

“There is going to be a bit of anxiety around that,” he said.

He said families will have to assess for themselves what’s safest for their children.