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Phoenix-Talent students, parents turn out for anti-mask rally

Andy Atknson / Mail TribunePhoenix High School students holds signs Wednesday at the intersection of South Pacific Highway and Phoenix Road during a protest about mask mandates.
Andy Atknson / Mail TribunePhoenix High School senior AJ Hawkins waves an American flag Wednesday at the intersection of South Pacific Highway and Phoenix Road during a protest about mask mandates.
The demonstration came days after the OHA’s decision to let districts choose whether to lift the mask mandate

Phoenix High School student AJ Hawkins stood squarely on a raised median at the intersection of South Pacific Highway and North Phoenix Road, waving an American flag on a sunny and warm Wednesday afternoon.

Hawkins said he had been kicked out of school Tuesday for refusing to wear a mask — something he felt was a long time coming. The following day, he rounded up his friends, went to the store for materials to make signs, and then Hawkins stood on a main thoroughfare making clear to everyone his view: masks should be optional.

“People have already been making it political and calling us ‘Mask Nazis’ and things like that,” he said. “People need to understand it all comes down to respect, in the end. We respect people’s opinions. We don’t want the masks to go away; we just want them to be an option.”

The way Hawkins sees it, choosing to wear a mask is like a lot of other things in life.

“You have the choice to either go to school or flunk. You have the choice to either go to work or don’t work,” he said. “Everything's a choice, and we like that.”

Like-minded protesters positioned near Hawkins held up signs that included messages such as “Breathe,” “Say No” and “Honk for Freedom” — numerous cars driving through the intersection Wednesday did.

Hawkins’ comments come as the Oregon Health Authority announced at the beginning of the week that it would relax the mask mandate at the end of next month and let school districts decide whether they should continue to enforce wearing of them.

Hawkins is hopeful the Phoenix-Talent School Board will choose optional masking. District Superintendent Brent Barry told the Mail Tribune this week that “ultimately, we hope to pursue” such a policy.

For Hawkins, the question at this point for the district should be: why wait for the state to give them the green light on the choice of masking?

“Just make it optional,” he said, even when informed by the newspaper that Oregon schools could lose some funding or face lawsuits for not following the mandate. “At some point, freedom comes over money — and that’s what needs to happen.”

In an email to the Mail Tribune Wednesday, Barry said Phoenix High School was the only place of learning in his district that saw some students take part in the masking protests Tuesday.

“Our staff at PHS handled it very well and it allowed us (PHS staff and myself) to listen and understand the frustration,” the superintendent wrote. “We get it, we hear them, and we are hopeful with OHAs announcement on Monday that we will have the ability to end our year in a masking optional environment. That is welcomed news!”

Wednesday was a different story, Barry went on to say. While “few” of his students continued protesting, nearly all of them were in attendance — something that he says continues to improve with students and staff coming out of the recent coronavirus surge.

“That is a great sign,” Barry wrote.

He addressed how the district handles students who violate indoor masking at school, saying officials rely on the relationships they have built with students and families.

“(We) hope to have respectful conversations, knowing there may be some disagreements on process and how we move forward. This has been the case time and time again,” Barry wrote. “We know our students have the right to peacefully protest about issues they are concerned about, and our hope is that students return to the classroom to maximize their learning opportunities in their classes.”

While Hawkins continues to be enrolled at a Phoenix-Talent High School, other students are not. Kelsey Massey said she pulled her children out last year over the mask mandate.

“It was enough for me to just switch (my kids) over to home school and quit my job,” she said.

Massey has numerous problems with school kids wearing masks.

“They have a hard time breathing, you can’t see people’s smiles,” she said. “You’re ostracizing them from each other; they can’t mature emotionally.”

Massey insists she won’t bring her children back to public school if masks continue to be mandated. If the district makes them optional, she’d consider re-enrolling her kids, but only if the policy is rolled out a certain way.

“They’re kind of leaving it up to the schools to decide. I want the kids to be able to decide,” Massey said. “If they truly made it the kids’ choice, then possibly, yes (I would re-enroll them).”

She talked about the importance of minors making decisions for themselves.

“When it comes down to their bodies, especially if they’ve done any kind of research and they chose more oxygen versus less CO2 poisoning, I think they get to decide those kinds of things,” Massey said, referring to a myth about mask-wearing that researchers have debunked.

Representatives with other school districts the Mail Tribune spoke with Wednesday, including Medford and Central Point, reported no demonstrations over mask-wearing or noncompliance among the student body.

But one South Medford High School student, Jakob Pratt, told the newspaper in a series of text messages that he had participated in anti-mask rallies and hates wearing the face coverings.

“They don’t do anything, and we’re allowed to take them off and eat and drink,” Pratt wrote. “So COVID takes a lunch break?”

Even though he “doesn’t trust” the Medford School District, he still believes officials should make masking optional.

“This is a public school, so wearing certain things should be optional,” Pratt wrote. “We don’t where (sic) school uniforms, so why masks?”

He added, “the school thinks they can control my life. However, they are not my parents.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.