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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public School investigating Finch Elementary principal and other staff members who refused to wear masks

The principal and other staff members at John A. Finch Elementary School refused to wear masks on Tuesday. Spokane Public Schools officials say they have opened an human resources investigation.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

Officials at Spokane Public Schools are investigating an incident in which several staff members at Finch Elementary School, including the principal, refused to wear masks as required under Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate and were escorted out of the school.

On Wednesday, the district refused to identify which other staff members were affected, their positions and what their employment status will be when school resumes on Monday.

“We are not commenting on personnel matters, as there is currently an active HR investigation regarding the incident at Finch Elementary School,” district communications director Sandra Jarrard told The Spokesman-Review in an email Wednesday.

In a letter sent to families Tuesday afternoon, the district pointed out that “as per the Governor’s mandate, all SPS staff and students are required to wear face coverings in school.”

The letter went on to state that “several staff members, including the school principal, chose not to adhere to the requirement and refused to wear a mask.”

The letter continued: “SPS’s district staff quickly addressed this situation, with limited impact to classroom and the school environment. Although we respect the varying opinions that exist regarding masks, we are required to follow the mandate and have taken the appropriate steps to ensure the situation is addressed.”

Among those escorted from the school was principal Shane O’Doherty.

He issued an apology Wednesday: “I am truly sorry if my actions on Tuesday resulted in confusion or anger for anyone, especially after Finch Elementary was thrust into the media.”

The peaceful protest, O’Doherty wrote, was undertaken out of his concern that mask wearing is having a negative effect on the education, social and emotional well-being of children.

He noted that many children are not wearing masks properly; are touching them without sanitized hands; and in some cases are chewing on them.

He said educators cannot see the facial expressions of their students, thus losing an important connection to their learning and called on the district to discuss the benefits versus the risks of requiring masks in schools.

Natalie Poulson, a special education specialist at the northwest Spokane school, told KXLY on Tuesday she was one of the staffers who was escorted off school property by district personnel at about 10:30 a.m.

“I think it’s the fact that it’s so hypocritical that you can go anywhere, that you can go sit down and have a nice dinner and not wear a mask, but you can’t sit at school 3 feet apart from everyone and not wear a mask,” said Poulson, who said she’s been placed on administrative leave.

Among organizations that recommend mask mandates in schools are the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Some public health officials have argued mask mandates are especially important because vaccines only recently became available to elementary-age students.

Multiple studies have shown that masks reduce transmission of COVID-19, including research by the ABC Science Collaborative, which is coordinated by the Duke University School of Medicine. That group’s work has shown that mask mandates significantly reduced COVID-19 outbreaks in schools even after the more contagious delta variant was widely circulating.

Poulson, an educator for 18 years, did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.

She has been a vocal critic of Inslee’s mandates on masks and vaccines.

On Oct. 3 in Olympia, Poulson spoke against the vaccine mandate during a “Medical Freedom Rally” held outside the state Capitol.

Poulson also participated in “Freedom Fridays,” a silent protest in which people across the state left shoes and messages supporting medical freedom.

Poulson quoted George Washington and the Pledge of Allegiance in her message. “I am standing up for Freedom!” Poulson wrote.

More than 90% of Spokane Public Schools employees are fully vaccinated, according to the district. Employees are required to receive regular COVID-19 tests and wear KN95 masks.