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Oregon school district loses COVID funds for ditching masks

The Oregonian Alsea School District Superintendent Marc Thielman, who's running for governor, says the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education "need to stop being science deniers and catch up with this virus."

The Oregon Department of Education took the rare step this week of withholding federal COVID-19 relief funds from the Alsea School District in Benton County after the small, rural district announced it would forgo the state’s school mask mandate.

The federal funding, ODE Director Colt Gill wrote to Alsea School District Superintendent Marc Thielman and board Chairman Ron Koetz, “requires school districts to comply with all state laws and regulations.” In August, Oregon reinstated mask requirements for schools.

“ODE does not support the decision in Alsea School District,” the department said in a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive, adding that by abandoning required face coverings “they should expect rapid transmission of COVID-19 that will prevent students from participating in in-person learning.”

That rapid transmission already is happening in Alsea. The district’s schools are closed this week because of staff shortages related to a local surge in coronavirus cases.

But Thielman, a Republican who’s running for governor of Oregon, says the district will stick with its new voluntary mask policy, which will be implemented when the schools reopen Monday.

“The decision comes from the overwhelming quantitative and qualitative data and scientific evidence that masking has had little to no significant effect at slowing the spread of (the omicron variant of COVID-19),” he told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an email. “Our current omicron wave that created our staff shortage occurred when we were still enforcing masking. This reality only adds to the wisdom of our school board to take back local control and let each individual make their own decisions regarding masking.”

The Alsea school board earlier this month voted unanimously for the “return of local health and safety decision-making.” Thielman then announced the end of mandatory face-covering, except for when one is riding on a school bus.

“This means parents must decide if they wish for their child to be masked when at school, both inside or outside,” Thielman wrote last Friday in a letter to parents.

The Oregon Department of Education said Alsea was the second Oregon district to be “found willfully out of compliance with the face-covering rules,” after Adrian School District in Malheur County. Oregon Occupational Safety and Health fined the Adrian district, ODE said, and Adrian returned to following the school mask mandate.

OSHA issued a $420 fine Jan. 4 to the Alsea district for failing to ensure mask compliance, records show.

The agency has received more complaints about the district and is evaluating next steps, spokesperson Aaron Corvin said.

Thielman, for his part, appears intent on staying the course on the issue.

“At what point,” he wrote on Twitter over the weekend, “will Gov. Brown & OHA [Oregon Health Authority] listen to diversity of voices they’re tasked with serving as experts across the globe move to balance measures against the collateral damages done by the very measures they installed to protect the public?”

His goal, the Alsea school superintendent wrote in another tweet, “was to balance guidance with negative impacts that protocols have had on student learning.”

Thielman told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an email that it is “well understood science that cloth and paper masks are ineffective at filtering out aerosolized” omicron particles. He did not address why the district has chosen to remove mask requirements altogether, rather than require more heavy-duty masks, other than to note “the countless negative student-staff interactions that result from masking.”

“OHA and Colt Gill need to stop being science deniers and catch up with this virus,” he said.

Thielman also said that Alsea’s suspended Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds amount to “around 180K, but we have the next three years to spend it. I am confident that OHA and ODE will have changed their conflicting guidance by then.”

It’s unusual for the Oregon Department of Education to hold back funds from a local school district over a dispute about state regulations and laws.

“We can say for certain that no state funds have been withheld from any district over the past decade,” ODE spokesperson Peter Rudy said. “We are not aware of any instances of federal funds being withheld over that period, either.”