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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Anti-mask protest halts Central Valley board meeting, part of disruptive national trend

Children and parents cover their faces with signs as they walk past the Central Valley School District’s office during a protest of masking regulations Aug. 18 in Spokane Valley.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

With the school year only days away, the controversy over mask mandates and other issues is ratcheting higher at school districts in Spokane and the rest of the nation.

Locally, tensions reached a new high Monday night when the Central Valley School District board of directors was forced to halt its meeting after only 30 minutes because most attendees refused to wear a mask.

That was in defiance of an order from Gov. Jay Inslee that had gone into effect that day; then again, that was the point.

Jessica Rider-Yaeger, who has two boys in the CV district, said the protest was a means to put more pressure on school boards to ignore state Superintendent Chris Reykdal’s threat to halt funding for any district that rejects the mask mandate.

“It’s pretty clear that the school board is refusing to hear us,” Rider-Yaeger said. Threatening to pursue a recall election, she added that “we will not stand for a school board that works for us, the people, who won’t listen to us as concerned parents.”

On the issue of masks, those parents are in the minority nationwide. According to a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, 69% of Americans support mask mandates in schools.

However, that support is sharply divided by political party: 92% of Democrats support a mandate versus just 44% of Republicans.

However, this is about more than masks.

Across the country, school administrators and governing boards have been confronted over COVID-19 vaccination policies, critical race theory, sex education and accommodations for LGBTQ students.

“School boards are a uniquely vulnerable spot in the culture war landscape because they’re open to everyone and they’re not really prepared for it,” said Adam Laats, a New York university professor who studies the history of education in the United States.

“You can go down to the meeting at 7.30 p.m. on Thursday and yell at someone rather than just feeling adrift in a changing culture,” he told The Guardian this week.

Many meetings have been disrupted or canceled. In Bend, Oregon, a board meeting was delayed twice after angry parents shouted at school board members and heckled a Spanish-language interpreter.

In Clarkstown, New York, the board was forced to end its Aug. 12 meeting when members of the public refused to wear masks. That same day in the affluent Palos Verdes neighborhood south of Los Angeles, protesters refused to wear face coverings; board members rescheduled the meeting on Zoom.

That’s what happened Monday night as the Central Valley board met at Riverbend Elementary School.

As the roughly 150 attendees entered the building, about 99% donned masks, said Marla Nunberg, the district’s director of communications.

However, most people had shed their masks by the time the meeting began at 6:30 p.m. The board began its agenda and was able to approve its 2021-22 budget but finally ended the meeting after most people refused to wear masks.

After at least three warnings from board President Debbie Long went unheeded, the board halted the meeting and scheduled a makeup session Wednesday night via Zoom.

Beginning Monday, masks were required in all indoor settings, per Inslee’s order.

“We have continued to follow the Department of Health and to follow the mandates,” Nunberg said Tuesday. “The mandate is that we wear a mask,” said Nunberg, who noted that a sizable number of attendees were in favor of wearing masks.”

“We are in an interesting time, but we need to work together as a community to get through this,” Nunberg said.

Monday’s confrontation comes five days after a large outdoor protest – also over masks – at the Central Valley district offices.

Two weeks ago, more than 100 parents and children protested the schools’ mask mandate during a Spokane Public Schools board meeting. None wore masks; however, Inslee’s latest order was not yet in effect.

The Spokane board will meet again Wednesday night. On the agenda are the budget and the equity policy, a lightning rod for criticism at the Aug. 11 board meeting.

Reached Tuesday morning, Spokane superintendent Adam Swinyard said he was already aware of the incident at Riverbend.

Swinyard reiterated the district’s commitment to follow public health guidance, as well as the governor’s requirement that people wear masks while indoors.

Asked what the district would do if attendees refuse to wear masks, Swinyard said it “would adjust accordingly.”