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Washington Superintendent warns Kettle Falls School District after it defies mask mandate

The state officially warned the Kettle Falls School District it could lose funding if it does not comply with Gov. Inslee's mask mandate for schools.

KETTLE FALLS, Wash. — The Kettle Falls School District (KFSD) has been sent an official warning from the state of Washington after its board voted to make masks optional for students and staff, in defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee's mask mandate.

School board members in Kettle Falls voted Monday night to make masks optional for students and staff effective immediately. 

On Tuesday morning, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) sent a letter to KFSD that it has "willfully failed to comply with the mask mandate."

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

OSPI gave Kettle Falls School District until March 2, 2022, to provide verification that it is in compliance with the mask mandate.

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.

Washington 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.”

Questions about mask requirements in Washington have come to the forefront in the past few weeks as more states like Oregon and California announced plans to lift mask mandates in indoor places.

There is no date for when the indoor mask mandate will lift in Washington, but Gov. Inslee said the "day is coming.” The Governor said he would have more details this week about the timing for ending the state’s mask requirements.

Some Kettle Falls board members did raise concerns on Monday night about how the state would react to a decision to make masks optional.

“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,” school board chairman Matt Langrehr added. 

“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.

In the letter to Kettle Falls, OSPI raises concerns about low vaccination rates in Stevens County.

"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," Reykdal wrote in the letter. "

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."

Reykdal`s warning letter to Kettle Falls comes one week after he sent a letter to Gov. Inslee asking him to remove the mask mandate in schools.

In that letter to the Governor, Reykdal said with high immunity rates and rapid testing available, now is the time to address masking in schools.

“As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials. I recommend the Governor and Department of Health change the guidance to reflect this in the coming weeks,” Reykdal wrote.

However, in his letter on Tuesday to PFSD, Reykdal stood by the Governor's decision to uphold the mask mandate for now.

"The Governor’s proclamation has the power of law, and I will not hesitate to uphold the law consistent with my oath of office. I trust Governor Inslee and the state Department of Health to make additional changes to our health mitigation expectations consistent with the latest science, health outcomes, and opportunities for individuals to protect themselves from the most severe outcome of a COVID infection. Until they take those actions, the Kettle Falls School District and all other school districts need to follow the law and take shared responsibility for our collective ability to mitigate COVID risks," Reykdal wrote.

WATCH MORE: Updated expected this week on Washington indoor mask mandate

Here is the full text of the letter from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal to Kettle Falls School District Superintendent Michael Olsen:

Dear Superintendent Olsen:

In accordance with Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 392-117-080, I am writing to provide you with your first notice that Kettle Falls School District No. 212 (KFSD) willfully failed to comply with the mask mandate incorporated in Proclamation 20-09.4, lawfully signed by Governor Inslee on July 30, 2021. 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.

On February 14, 2022, the KFSD School Board voted to make masks optional for students and staff throughout the district, effective immediately. As you are aware, the Governor’s proclamation requires students and staff to comply with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ requirements and guidance for preventing COVID-19, and the Washington State Department of Health’s requirements for K–12 Schools, which includes “[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.” The Department of Labor and Industries also has specific authority for safe working conditions for employees, which currently includes universal masking as a responsibility of the employer to both supply and enforce.

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 research is clear – masks work to reduce the spread of COVID. I understand there are also downsides to mask wearing that must be considered in the context of vaccine availability, rapid testing options, and substantial infection acquired immunity. These considerations are legally in the hands of public health officials and the Governor, not local school boards. The Governor’s proclamation has the power of law, and I will not hesitate to uphold the law consistent with my oath of office. I trust Governor Inslee and the state Department of Health to make additional changes to our health mitigation expectations consistent with the latest science, health outcomes, and opportunities for individuals to protect themselves from the most severe outcome of a COVID infection. Until they take those actions, the Kettle Falls School District and all other school districts need to follow the law and take shared responsibility for our collective ability to mitigate COVID risks.

I have determined that KFSD willfully failed to meet the standards set forth in Proclamation 20-09.4. As provided for in WAC 392-117-080(1), the district will have until March 2, 2022 to provide verification of compliance with the proclamation. Verification of compliance will be accomplished by KFSD providing evidence of a district-wide policy of adhering to the health and safety protocols contained within Proclamation 20-09.4

I look forward to receiving verification that health and safety requirements are being upheld in the Kettle Falls School District.

Sincerely,

Chris Reykdal

Superintendent of

Public Instruction

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