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'It was only a matter of time': Portland Public Schools board chair on suspending in-person meeting, resuming discussions virtually

On Tuesday night, leaders decided to move a PPS board meeting online after several people refused to wear masks.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Across the country, school board meetings have become a flashpoint. Groups against mandates for vaccines — or masks — show up to loudly voice their opinions. 

On Tuesday night, a Portland Public Schools (PPS) meeting got out of hand before it even began, and leaders decided to move it online after several people refused to wear masks.

Board Chair Michelle DePass told KGW she has watched meetings ramp up in other districts over the summer and said it was only a matter of time before it happened in Portland. 

As she watched more than 100 people pour in for the PPS meeting where they were going to discuss a proposed vaccine mandate for students, she said ahead of the meeting, her main concern was masks. 

"I conferred with staff and we had two paths," she said. "We could not start the meeting or we could, with grace, start the meeting and ask everyone to comply with the indoor mask mandate."

DePass did the latter, giving everyone a brief opportunity to comply with the statewide rule. When many refused, she moved to suspend the meeting and move it online. Tensions ran high among many in the room, even before the meeting began. 

"It was a few minutes late, in hopes that people would mask up. They didn't. So, our plan was to recess the meeting until people could get to a safe place to sign in.

"I was particularly concerned about the people that came in good faith to sign in to testify, that had signed up well in advance, that they were not able to, or safe in expressing their views."

In a statement, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said the masks were just one of the concerns, writing, "Tuesday night our students and staff were also confronted with the use of offensive racist language.  Hate speech is not tolerated in our community. This incident is an affront to our core values of racial equity and social justice, respect, honesty and integrity."

"We weren't hiding behind a screen," DePass asserted. "We were doing the business of the district in a safe environment."

Other agenda items were discussed virtually before the board moved to the big talker: mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for students. The board ultimately decided to delay a vote on it until Nov. 16 at the earliest. 

As for the mask noncompliance, the outbursts and the fierce feelings surrounding these difficult topics, Chair DePass called it a kind of emotional fallout brought about on by the pandemic. 

"It feels like a moment where everybody in the community just needs to take a nap and have a cup of tea," she said. "If you're not mad about vaccine mandates, or your child quarantining, it's going to be something. This is maybe a late stage affect of a pandemic, that we're struggling emotionally as a community, lots of us."