On Feb. 15, the School Board of Richland voted to make masks optional for students and staff, in violation of Washington’s statewide mask mandate.
At a special board meeting, a surprise motion was introduced by board member and Legislative Representative M. Semi Bird for schools to adopt a policy of “mask choice.” The motion was carried by a vote of three out of five board members. Explaining why he brought the surprise motion, Bird stated it was “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.”
Echoing his sentiments, board member Audra Byrd said: “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.”
Despite this supposed concern for the wellbeing of students and their families, the board has done very little in recent months to meet the needs of the community. Students in Richland’s high schools have been involved in a lengthy battle to remove a teacher over sexist conduct. About 18.6% of all children within the Richland School District live below the poverty line. Richland community members have been demanding more be done to combat racism in Richland’s predominantly white schools, and to remove police officers from school. Very little, if anything, has been done to address these concerns. This recent vote for “mask choice” was called less than a month after the highest surge of reported COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, jeopardizing the health of students, parents, and school faculty and staff.
Board members Rick Jansons and Jill Oldson pointed out that the vote violated the law. In Janson’s words, “We are directing staff to violate the law which I think is illegal for us to do, so I’m a ‘no.’” Oldson stated the vote may not even be legitimate due to the breaking of procedures, which require special meeting topics to be declared with 24 hours notice and agendas be made public before decisions can be voted on under Washington state law.
The surprise vote was called two days prior to a scheduled press conference by Gov. Jay Inslee, in which it was known that the governor would be making an announcement about the mask mandate.
The “mask choice” decision by the three school board members led Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to launch a process to withhold state funding from Richland School District. A lawsuit was then filed against OSPI by lawyer Pete Serrano of the right-wing Silent Majority Foundation, questioning their ability to withhold funding.
Faced with the decision to carry out what appeared to be an illegal policy, Richland School District Superintendent Dr. Shelley Redinger issued a directive closing schools on Feb. 16 to “plan a path forward.” During this time, all student activities ceased, including meal programs. Community members Elizabeth Lugo and Carrie Hallquist created the online group “Community for an Ethical School Board” as a result of the closures. Hundreds of people joined the group within the day.
On the night of Feb. 16, the district sent out another message to let parents know schools would remain closed going into the following day. In response to the decision to continue to close schools over the board’s vote for “mask choice,” Community for an Ethical School Board called for a protest at John Dam Plaza in Richland.
Regarding the decisions leading up to calling the protest, Elizabeth Lugo said, “We’ve been frustrated over the last several weeks and months of our school board meetings being hijacked, of school board members not making rational decisions. We’re tired, we’re done. We’ve written letters, we’ve made phone calls, we’ve done emails. We were so frustrated with the closure of schools due to Tuesday night’s actions, we decided to put together a Facebook page at 9’clock yesterday morning so we could rally this upcoming Tuesday. Last night the school board met for 3+ hours in closed-door, and could still not find the moral compass to make the right decisions. Therefore, the education process has been interfered with again for a second day. We decided we needed to take action now.”
Over 250 students, parents, faculty, and community members attended the protest on Feb. 17, with the clear message to the board: “You do not represent us.” Protesters waved signs along George Washington Way in Richland, while passing cars honked their support.
The overwhelming majority of protesters felt the issue was political, beyond simply the issue of masks and COVID-19. One community member at the protests said: “This should not be an issue, but it is. The school board is testing the state to see how far they can push them, to see how far they bend before they break. But this is the law, and now our schools will be losing $850,000 a day because they are prioritizing their political agendas over the education and safety of their students.” The $850,000 figure was taken by dividing the annual RSD budget by the number of instructional days in the school year.
Following the end of the protest, around 80 people continued protesting at the RSD Administration Building in West Richland. Protesters came to show support for the members of the board standing against the vote, and to show support for Redinger for shutting down the schools to avoid dangerous COVID exposure. Protesters used chalk to leave messages of support for RSD faculty and admin resisting the “mask choice” movement in front of the building’s doors.
A large group of students had also organized to protest the decision, even as Richland schools closed down to prepare for the changes. The student group called a meeting for the evening of Feb. 17, to plan next steps in the event of a closure on Feb. 18. One student in the meetings noted that: “A lot of us don’t feel safe at school now, and we’re worried about our classmates who are immunocompromised, and also our parents and grandparents who we live with. I hope that the city will still take steps to protect us all.”
On Feb. 17, two days after the school board vote in Richland, Inslee held his planned press conference. At the conference, Inslee declared the state would no longer be requiring masks in schools beginning March 21.
Faced with the pressure brought by hundreds of Richland citizens taking to the streets and with little backing in the community to uphold the vote for “mask choice” ahead of the proposed schedule, the school board backpedaled on the issue, voting to follow the timeline of the rest of the state and setting aside the issue for one more month.
With COVID transmission levels still high, and hospitals in Richland still not under normal operations, the risk remains high. Whether a mask mandate is in place or not, it is imperative that the people still call upon all public institutions to take appropriate action against COVID-19. The movement in Richland shows that despite the insistence of politicians and the ruling class that things “return to normal,” people can apply the pressure necessary to force stronger protective measures to be taken against COVID.