Following a warning from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries after the board voted to make masks optional for students, Kettle Falls School District students and staff will comply, effective immediately, with Gov. Jay Inslee’s mask mandate.
The board voted 3-2 to come into compliance in a special meeting that was not intended for public comment, but that didn’t stop a handful of community members from expressing their opinions. All of those speakers were opposed to mask-wearing at the almost 30-minute meeting.
District schools were closed Thursday to “effectively analyze information,” the district said in a statement.
The neighboring Colville School District is in a similar situation and has scheduled a virtual special meeting at 1 p.m. Friday.
The Kettle Falls board voted on Feb. 14 to make masks optional for students and staff effective immediately. Last week, Inslee announced the indoor mask mandate would be lifted on March 21.
The following day, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction sent a letter telling the district it had “willfully failed to comply with the mask mandate” and threatened to withhold funding.
However, according to the school district’s human resources director, Julie Peterson, the Washington state Labor & Industries “opened an investigation regarding our students and staff having the option of wearing masks.”
“In response to that investigation we began requiring staff to wear masks while still allowing students the freedom to choose,” Peterson said in a statement.
According to Peterson, L&I notified the district that it was in compliance.
That changed late Wednesday, when the district said “in response to a call from the Governor’s Office, they have changed their position and are now requiring masks for staff and students.”
“This change put us out of compliance and creates a significant risk of fines,” Peterson said.
Matt Ross, public affairs at L&I, said when the department gets a complaint, its first step is a fact-finding investigation. Part of that includes having the organization submit a written response that indicates whether it is following masking guidelines.
In this scenario, the school district indicated it would follow the guidelines, Ross said, so the department considered it a “satisfactory response.”
After submitting the response, the district then said it meant only teachers and staff would follow the mandate, and they would not enforce it for students, Ross said.
The department then went back for a second fact-finding investigation and found the district was not in compliance, Ross said.
Ross said organizations are required under the guidance to follow the masking guidelines themselves and enforce it for those in the building. They are accountable for those who do not follow it, such as students.
Kettle Falls Superintendent Michael Olsen said at Thursday’s meeting that L&I could fine the district for each violation, which means one for each unmasked student or staff member. Olsen said it was upsetting that L&I and OSPI did not provide specifics about what the penalties would be if the district failed to comply with Inslee’s mandate – even after Olsen said he asked the agencies.
Olsen said he was told that the school district could be fined as much as $70,000 per unmasked staff member.
“Throughout all this process, L&I and OSPI have been very, very vague,” Olsen said. “They won’t get pinned down on specifics. They’re not being transparent at all.”
Ultimately, Olsen said he did not believe the penalties, which could deplete the district’s cash reserves, were worth defying the mandate, and recommended the board ask students to wear masks.
Reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this article.
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