Tensions rise as Richland debates mask mandate, vaccine rules and survey results

·5 min read

COVID-related disputes dominated this week’s Richland School Board meeting, highlighting ongoing tensions around WA state requirements for students and staff.

The more than three-hour meeting started with flaring tempers when newly-elected board member Audra Byrd objected to wearing a mask for the in-person session.

Byrd’s campaign for the school board was focused on overturning various COVID-related requirements, including making requirements. She has questioned whether they are healthy.

When others in the audience Tuesday night also were not wearing masks, Board President Jill Oldson threatened to shut down the meeting and switch it to an online Zoom session.

“I don’t care if we’re in a public meeting or where we are,” Oldson said. “We are expecting every one of our teachers to go and sit in a classroom for eight hours a day and teach our kids with a mask on. We are asking our students to sit there in a classroom for eight hours a day with a mask on. We don’t make the rules. We live in a community right now that is run by a state who says those are the rules.”

That was a prelude to a discussion about a survey last week that asked parents if the board should try to buck state COVID rules and risk losing more than three quarters of the district’s revenue, which comes from the state.

The board is considering a resolution on how the state determines a COVID vaccination requirement for school attendance.

The discussion comes at a time when teachers and administrators are stretched thin because of the surging omicron variant.

Richland schools reported 223 positive cases among students in a single day this week. Last week, the district had 541 students ill. Health officials have said it would be worse if masks weren’t worn.

Richland school officials assured parents this week that classes will continue in person even if they lose staff after Monday’s vaccine mandate deadline.
Richland school officials assured parents this week that classes will continue in person even if they lose staff after Monday’s vaccine mandate deadline.

One schools employee told the board that teachers are losing class preparation time, being bused to other schools to cover for other sick employees and kitchen managers are saying they won’t be able to make food if they lose more kitchen workers.

“Never mind the line stretching from the health room that has now become a health clinic and information hub,” the speaker said.

“And yet, COVID and its effects have not been on the board agenda except for board members to try to find ways around the mask mandates since Oct. 12 of last year,” she said.

Survey results

Richland board members also talked about the results of an apparently hastily-compiled parent survey.

Byrd along with school board member Kari Williams released the results of what they described as a learning experience.

They admitted there were several problems with the survey, including the fact that there were no safeguards preventing people from answering it more than once or guaranteeing that the survey was limited to Richland School District residents.

While the survey was intended for people in Richland and West Richland, Byrd said the Google Forms link made its way out onto social media sites and people from outside the region and state voiced their opinions, sometimes multiple times.

One question that grabbed the most attention from community members asked whether the school board “should closely follow all mandates and requirements passed by the state and federal governments.”

A survey question raised concerns that the district was trying to buck state requirements.
A survey question raised concerns that the district was trying to buck state requirements.

That raised concerns among people who felt that the district was going to attempt to ignore state rules. The fears were fueled by the recent election of two board members, Audra Byrd and Semi Bird, who campaigned on their open opposition to the state requirements.

The problem is that challenging the state mandates means risking the loss of state and federal funding. Most of the district’s budget is funneled through the state.

Byrd said the question ended up on the survey by mistake. She said they borrowed the questions from another community’s survey and meant to remove it.

“Though there were some people who really loved the question there were a lot of people who were really upset with the question,” she said. “We have discussed it as a board, the pros and cons of going against the mandate, and have felt the cons outweigh the pros.”

COVID vaccine

Another question was aimed at the possibility that a COVID vaccine could become required for children to attend school.

Most of the respondents, 58.5%, said their children already were vaccinated or they would follow the requirements if that happened

The Richland school board asked how parents would react if the COVID vaccine was required.
The Richland school board asked how parents would react if the COVID vaccine was required.

Another 10% were unsure and 27% said they would pull their students out of the school if they weren’t given the option of filing an exemption.

Despite the majority’s response, the whole board is moving forward with opposing putting the COVID vaccine on the list of other required vaccinations.

Students currently are required to get vaccinations for hepatitis, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps and chickenpox. In certain cases, they may be able to get an exception.

The state Board of Health has put together a group of people drawn from educators, health expects and members of the public to review whether COVID vaccines should be added to that.

Benton Franklin Health District Health Officer Dr. Amy Person said the state’s process for adding a required vaccination is very rigorous.

“It isn’t just that a vaccine has to be safe and effective, or approved for use, it has to be that a vaccine has been shown to reduce transmission, primarily in schools or in the community. It has to be vaccines that are accessible, vaccines that are accepted by the medical community and by the public,” she told the board.

In total, there are nine criteria the state uses. While Person said the state can approach the criteria in any order, Williams said she felt like the state was skipping a step.

Williams was concerned that the FDA has not issued a full approval for the vaccine for children.

According to information from the FDA, the agency used an ongoing placebo-controlled study with 4,700 children. The study is being conducted in the U.S., Finland, Poland and Spain.

Some board members said they would support a resolution that says the state needs to follow the same process it always has for any vaccine requirement.

A resolution won’t necessarily change what the state does. It’s a statement of the board’s position on the issue.

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