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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kettle Falls School District votes to make masks optional for students, staff; notified by state to comply with Inslee’s mandate

The Kettle Falls School Board defied Gov. Jay Inslee’s face mask mandate and voted Monday night to make masks optional for students and staff, prompting the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to issue a notice Tuesday to the school district to comply with the governor’s requirement.

“We’re talking with them and we’re encouraging them to take action to reverse the action that they took last night,” Katy Payne, OSPI executive director of communications, said Tuesday. “And we hope that they do.”

Payne said the school district has until March 2 to comply with Inslee’s mask mandate. If it doesn’t, a second notice will be issued and the district would have five days to come into compliance. If it fails to comply in that timeframe, Payne said her office would withhold the monthly apportionment payments the district receives from the state.

Kettle Falls School District Superintendent Michael Olsen said he advised the school board on a number of factors prior to the school board’s decision at Monday night’s special board meeting. He said the school board is his boss and the board members understand that he supports their decisions and will help implement them.

“I support my school board and my community and my staff,” Olsen said.

School board members did not respond to emailed requests for comment Tuesday.

Olsen said the district is waiting to hear what Inslee decides on his indoor mask mandate, an announcement expected Thursday. Inslee said last week that the mask requirement for large outdoor events will lift Friday.

Olsen said the district will consider all of its options and make a plan moving forward after Inslee’s announcement.

Olsen said the feedback from community members regarding the school board’s decision has been “overwhelmingly positive.” He said the district also received feedback from school districts across the state voicing their support. Some people questioned the board’s timing, given Inslee’s expected announcement regarding the indoor mask mandate, Olsen said.

Chris Reykdal, Washington superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement last week that he recommends the Washington State Department of Health and Inslee make mask wearing a local decision for students in K-12 schools.

“The combination of widespread vaccinations and much higher infection acquired immunity due to the pervasive omicron variant has changed the landscape of the pandemic once again,” Reykdal said in the statement. “I believe it is time to carefully plan our move from a pandemic response to an endemic system of readiness … 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.”

Payne said prior to the notice issued to the Kettle Falls School District on Tuesday, her office has issued two first notices and one “pre-first notice” to school districts in Washington. She said two of the three notices were related to Inslee’s mask requirement and one was related to the vaccination requirement for school employees. All three were issued in the fall and those districts came into compliance before a second notice was issued, Payne said.

She said she is hopeful the Kettle Falls School District will follow those districts’ footsteps.