KETTLE FALLS, Wash. — School board members in Kettle Falls voted Monday night to make masks optional for students and staff effective immediately.
The decision violates Gov. Jay Inslee’s mask mandate— the district could lose out on state funding.
"No one has voted to unmask at this time across our state, not a single district,” said Kettle Falls school board chairman Matt Langrehr.
Gov. Inslee announced plans to start easing some mask mandates at a press conference last week saying “the day is coming” when the state will no longer need them. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal urged the governor to make masks optional in the classroom.
"It's time to make the next transition in this pandemic and that is likely a mask optional but our schools are ready to make this transition,” Reykdal said.
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With that news, some school board members wanted the district to wait it out.
“I am all for de-masking our kids, I do have concern with the liabilities we would take on,” board member Chip Johnson said. “It’s simply a matter of days or a couple of weeks before our state lifts the mandate,” Langrehr added. Both men abstained from voting Monday night, three other board members agreed to make masks optional.
“I wish I felt the same, that I was confident in change coming soon but I have heard that for two years,” board member Brett McKern said.
On Tuesday, OSPI sent a letter warning the Kettle Falls School District of its failure to comply with the mask mandate.
"If KFSD does not take action to be in compliance with the mandate, I am prepared to take further steps as defined in the rules to withhold, and eventually reduce, state funding," Reykdal wrote.
"You are aware that Stevens County has had over 8,000 COVID cases, 500+ hospitalizations, and tragically 120+ deaths since the start of the pandemic. Stevens County remains the county with the lowest community vaccination rate in the state of Washington. I am confident that without masking in schools and in our communities, especially before vaccines were widely available, the loss of life in your county would have been much worse." the letter continued.
A spokesperson from the State Superintendent’s Office (OSPI) told KREM 2 districts willfully violating the mandate will get an official notice. If the issue is not corrected within 20 days, the state will withhold a monthly payment and will reduce funding until corrective action is taken.
Kettle Falls School District Superintendent Michael Olsen said the district is prepared to use cash reserves if the state withholds money, but can only survive for about four to six weeks.
"If Gov. Inslee's timeline is mid-march, that would be after OSPI started withholding our apportionment. So, in order to continue not wearing masks, we would need to be able to rely on some of our cash reserves to get us through until we receive that apportionment back," Olsen said.
In a statement, Governor Press Secretary Mike Faulk said in part:
“School board actions do not supersede state laws, which are being applied here using the latest science and best public health practices. The science tells us masks work. They are an easy way for people to keep each other safe. Throughout the pandemic they have helped reduce infection in congregate settings where people have lower vaccination rates, including schools.”