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Washington school district that defied mask mandate closes amid state investigation

The Kettle Falls School District canceled class after receiving notice of a state Labor & Industries investigation into its decision to drop masking requirements.

KETTLE FALLS, Wash. — The Kettle Falls School District (KFSD) closed on Thursday to review its decision to drop mask requirements for students, teachers, and staff. The decision by the school board is in violation of Washington’s state masking requirements for schools.

Julie Peterson, HR Manager for the district, told KREM 2 the decision to close follows a call from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries regarding an investigation related to masking, that the district received on Wednesday. 

"Last week Labor and Industries opened an investigation regarding our students and staff having the option of wearing masks. In response to that investigation we began requiring staff to wear masks while still allowing students the freedom to choose. Friday, Labor and Industries notified us that we were in compliance. Yesterday, Labor and Industries informed us that in response to a call from the Governor’s Office they have changed their position and are now requiring masks for staff and students. This change put us out of compliance and creates a significant risk of fines," said a statement from KFSD shared with staff.

The Kettle Falls School Board plans to meet on Thursday night to figure out the next steps for the district.

In the meantime, school is closed. 

“The Kettle Falls School District will be closed today, Thursday, February 24th. We have continued to receive and analyze new information regarding the masking requirements, and need to close today to effectively analyze information received on Wednesday, February 23rd.” KFSD wrote in a Facebook post.

The Kettle Falls School District will be closed today, Thursday, February 24th. We have continued to receive and analyze...

Posted by Kettle Falls School District on Thursday, February 24, 2022

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans to end the state’s mask mandate on March 21, but until then state requirements for K-12 schools currently state “[a]ll school personnel, volunteers, visitors, and students must wear well-fitting face coverings, or an acceptable alternative (e.g., surgical mask or clear face shield with a drape), at school when indoors.”

School board members in Kettle Falls voted on Feb. 14 to make masks optional for students and staff effective immediately.

The following day, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) sent a letter to KFSD that it had "willfully failed to comply with the mask mandate."

The letter from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal warned, "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."

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.

The prospect of hefty fines led Kettle Falls School Board members to reconsider during Thursday night's school board meeting.

This reversal prompted many Kettle Falls residents present to voice their displeasure, as board members had very little control at times. Despite protests, after a 3-2 vote, masks are back in the Kettle Falls School District. The mask mandate will be in effect for 13 more school days before the state mandate is lifted.

Two other districts in Washington state have recently voted to make masks optional. The Richland School Board initially voted to drop them, but then reinstated masks after the Governor’s announcement. Colville School District has made masks optional for students, but it still requires them for teachers, staff, and visitors.

WATCH MORE: Kettle Falls School District Superintendent Michael Olsen on defying mask mandate 

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