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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

North Idaho College rescinds mask mandate during contentious meeting

The North Idaho College campus is shown in this aerial view.   (Courtesy)

The campus-wide mask mandate issued by North Idaho College President Rick MacLennan officially lasted four days.

The college’s Board of Trustees moved Thursday to rescind the mandate after a majority of members voted to amend college policy, giving the board powers as the final authority on preventative measures for communicable diseases. The move effectively takes away that authority from the college president.

The mandate, which took effect Monday and was set to be in place for at least two weeks, required students, staff and visitors to wear double-layer face coverings at all times while inside college buildings when two or more people are present.

The mandate was rescinded during a contentious board meeting Thursday that saw recommendations from Kootenai Health questioned by Board Chair Todd Banducci.

The board majority – Banducci, Vice Chair Greg McKenzie and Trustee Michael Barnes – moved to amend the college’s internal policy in light of Idaho Code 33-2145, which states a community college’s board of trustees “must adopt a policy for measures and procedures to prevent the spread of contagious or infectious disease.”

The policy amendment, drafted by McKenzie, was reportedly circulated via email to MacLennan and the Panhandle Health District, resulting in two separate revisions.

The board voted to pass an initial version. A second, reportedly more comprehensive version of the legislation, will be circulated to the NIC Senate and administration for further review prior to a board vote.

Several trustees were eager to approve the new legislation before Sunday’s deadline for class adds or drops .

McKenzie said he has heard of students either withdrawing from NIC or considering a withdrawal due to the mask mandate.

“Updating this policy is resolving a tough spot that this board is in, and there is no easy choice,” McKenzie said. He added, “This is not a debate about mask efficacy. This is a debate about who gets the final say, and right now, this college is out of compliance with (state law).”

MacLennan said “very few” students have been unable to access college programs due to the mandate. The college did not allow exceptions, instead offering access to a class taught online or a refund for withdrawal from the class, according to records obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

The board’s speed to act was at issue Thursday, as the board majority approved the measure despite warnings from MacLennan and their fellow trustees that doing so could result in legal action.

“This would be the sort of document that I think as the events on the ground unfold and the situation is very fluid and dynamic, we probably have to review this thing again at the next meeting or at the next couple meetings to make sure it’s where we want it and the balance between the administration and the board,” Banducci said.

MacLennan said the typical procedure for adopting changes to college policy involves a much more comprehensive process, with multiple readings and opportunities for public comment.

Thursday’s contention was the latest chapter in the fractured relationship between MacLennan and the board majority – particularly with Banducci, who has faced complaints from the president and others in the college community of aggressive, unprofessional and threatening behavior.

Those complaints have led to an inquiry by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), through which North Idaho College receives regional accreditation. The commission’s investigation, which particularly concerns the board’s leadership role in relation to the college administration, is pending ad hoc report as an attachment with the college’s 2022 annual report due by Aug. 1, 2022.

MacLennan said with the board’s decision to pass the policy, “you are beginning to write the first paragraph of the ad hoc report.”

”There’s nothing in the state law that would compel the board to forgo the policy development process that it has developed in policy,” he said.

The legislation was introduced for the first time during Thursday’s meeting, one Banducci called without a public comment period. The measure passed 3-2, with Trustees Ken Howard and Christie Wood opposed.

“I have sympathy for people who can’t come on the campus for a lot of reasons, and we can’t accommodate everybody – not just in a COVID environment,” Howard said. “So yes, do I have feelings and compassion for those who can’t come? Absolutely. But I still have an obligation to make sure that what we do on this campus is safe for as many people as possible.”

Wood described the legislation as “some policy I haven’t even read.”

“If the three of you … want to move forward and adopt some policy that we don’t even know is legally vetted – our attorney has told us not to rush this, but you choose to ignore that – that’s on you,” she said.

The measure to rescind the mask mandate passed by the same vote.

“I encourage you to wear (masks) if you believe that’s what’s going to help, but don’t shun and don’t mock and don’t demean those who choose not to,” Barnes said. “I am one who chooses not to, and I won’t because it restricts my oxygen so severely that within 30 seconds, I’m about to pass out.”

MacLennan said, “If the board chooses to do something different, you are sending a very clear message to this college community that the board does not put the health and welfare of its faculty, staff and students at front of mind. You’re telling them that you do not care.”

As trustees debated the issued, MacLennan read a letter the college received Wednesday from Kootenai Health. In it, district officials applauded the college policy on masks.

After MacLennan was done, Banducci questioned the letter’s legitimacy given that it was received a day before the meeting.

“I just find it interesting that you’re going to bring up a letter,” Banducci said, “and I question, did those folks just wake up that morning and go, ‘You know, I think we’re going to generate this letter today and send it to NIC just because it just came to us to do this today.’ ”

Wood responded, “Todd, you understand you’re questioning the motivations of a major health partner in the region.”

“Actually I do, Christie, on this one,” Banducci replied. “I think there’s been a lot of things done behind the scenes, and I think there’s a lot of orchestration of things that go on, and I think this is just an example of it.”