Bill Wortman, Adrian High School principal, said he has "reflected" and "learned" since the mask mandate controversy in the school district. (The Enterprise/FILE)
ADRIAN – On the first day of school in August, the Adrian school superintendent stopped himself from going in and headed back home.
“I forgot a mask,” then-Superintendent Kevin Purnell wrote to his staff in a welcoming note. “A little ironic.”
But masks have been more than an inconvenience in Adrian.
They pitted the strong will of a rural community against the might of state government.
Now, with a superintendent fired and international media attention faded, the Adrian School District is trying to move past the turmoil of those opening days of school.
But first, it faces the largest fine imposed to date on an Oregon school system for disobeying the state’s mask mandate. State officials disclosed last week that they propose to fine the Adrian system $10,500 for its “willful” violation of the mandate.
School district officials promptly appealed the citation from Oregon OSHA. But the contest will be more over the size of the fine than the findings the Adrian system wasn’t heeding mask protocols.
Records released to the Enterprise last week by Oregon OSHA help track the collision course between a school system serving 259 students and a state government determined that public agencies and businesses alike obey the mandates.
Raeshelle Meyer took over as superintendent last week, leaving her job as principal of the high school at Four Rivers Community School in Ontario.
“Everybody’s ready to move on,” she said. “I want to provide some unity and continuity and help with the healing process. That’s what the teachers to do.”
The local school board has bristled all along at rules imposed by state officials from the other side of the state. The board took the state to court in September 2020, hoping to break the state’s control over when local schools could return to the classroom. The legal case went nowhere because Gov. Kate Brown subsequently mapped out how schools could re-open.
The trajectory for the more recent turmoil traces to an Aug. 2 announcement by the state that masks would be mandated inside schools for teachers, staff and students. The declaration came as Covid surged again in Oregon, and Malheur County watched its case rate climb week by week.
Parents in the Adrian district were alerted to the new rule in an Aug. 11 note from school officials. It explained there was a new mask mandate and parents could learn more at a virtual town hall to be conducted by state health and school officials.
At a school board meeting the following day, Purnell explained the new mandate has the “weight of law” and that district face fines for violating Covid restrictions. He said he’d keep advocating for more local control but “he will not break the law meanwhile,” according to board minutes.
He told the board that parents had been surveyed about the masks.
“The results are 90% of those surveyed preferred to attend school with no masks, and 10% want masks required because of health concerns.”
Then citizens had their turn to speak to the board.
“We need to stand up and not take it anymore,” one speaker, said according to board minutes.
“We are all entitled to personal choice and Gov. Brown cannot dictate that,” said another.
“It would be a shame if we didn’t buck the system a little,” said yet another.
At that same meeting, the school board declared that the district “will not take any punitive measures or actions towards students or families who decline to wear a mask.”
The governor pushed back hard on such views in an Aug. 16 letter to every school superintendent in the state.
She wrote she was “aware that some leaders in the education community – including school board members in public meetings and administrators in written communications to parents – have expressed a willingness to defy, ignore and undermine school mask requirements,” she wrote. “There is no ambiguity in Oregon’s mask requirements or the legal authority of Oregon OSHA to enforce those requirements.”
The next day, the state officials issued another revision to state rules. This time, school leaders were advised how to handle students who weren’t wearing masks.
“Conversations should be progressive and lead to resolution that ideally does not involve suspension. Schools cannot serve a student in-person if they or their family chose not to wear a face covering,” the guidance said.
The Adrian School Board grabbed hold of the first part, staking out for the community its position. In an Aug. 20 letter, the board members reminded the community of its Aug. 12 decision not to punish students over masks. It’s unclear when the letter was distributed and to whom.
“Staff cannot force a student to wear their mask, nor can we discipline them for not wearing a mask,” the letter advised. It was signed by Board Chair Eddie Kinkade, Vice Chair Quentin Shenk and board members Eric White, Ryan Martin and Bob Davis.
The letter made no mention of the state’s new rule barring schools from allowing students to attend if they elect not to wear a mask.
The next day a local citizen filed what appears to be the first complaint with OSHA over the brewing mask issue: “School district publicly announced refusal to comply with mask mandate.”
Purnell responded to OSHA that wasn’t so, and restated the board’s policy about not punishing students or families.
The first day of school was on Monday, Aug. 23. Billy Wortman, long-time football coach in Adrian, was in his new job as principal of Adrian High School. New teachers were on duty in several classrooms. Signs about Covid requirements were posted in school hallways and a supply of masks was available, as was hand sanitizer.
“Many students arrived without masks on the first day of school,” Purnell wrote to OSHA. “We spent a great deal of time, and will continue spending time reminding our students and staff about the need to wear masks,” he wrote.
School employees later questioned by an OSHA inspector one after the other recounted Purnell’s directives on masks. He made clear, they said, that masks had to be worn.
At the end of the week, Purnell was moved to share with parents the rough start to the mask mandate.
He said “numerous” students ignored the guideline even after teachers “tried to approach this in a caring and compassionate manner, reminding students to wear masks.”
He urged parents to help get matters under control.
“A growing resentment among students has also led in some instances to a lack of respect by some students towards others,” he said. “I would encourage you and your children to choose another method of protest.”
Wortman, the new high school principal, took a different tack, he told an OSHA inspector.
He estimated one out of five students wasn’t wearing a mask but school officials were “not making a big deal about it – we go to school,” according to the inspector’s notes of the conversation.
Asked what he does when staff isn’t wearing a mask, Wortman responded that he doesn’t “harp on it. They are grown adults,” the inspector recounted.
Responding last week to written questions from the Enterprise, Wortman noted that Adrian was in the “infancy” of its school year. He noted that he was new in his job as well.
“They were the first days of my new career and I was excited to have students at school,” Wortman wrote. “I wanted students to feel welcome and ready to learn, and let the distraction of changing guidance not be a factor in their initial days of school.”
He added, “I did not want the brunt of these changes to affect students in any manner. Our goal was and continues to be for students to be learning in school.”
As for the teachers, “At times I may have failed to communicate to staff. However, staff has been great about compliance with mask mandates.”
By the time Purnell wrote his plea to parents, his days in the job were numbered.
The school board met in the high school gymnasium on Monday, Aug. 30.
One of its first acts was to join another district’s planned lawsuit contesting the state’s vaccine and mask mandates. The vote to do so was unanimous.
At 8:50 p.m., the board went behind closed doors for an executive session. It emerged 13 minutes later and voted to “dismiss” Purnell.
The decision stunned the community and resulting news coverage about his dismissal over Covid mandates generated international attention.
Wortman would later report that the school district got 500 emails or voicemails, most criticizing the decision to fire Purnell and some threatening.
“Consider this a warning to give the man his job back or suffer the consequences,” one email said. Another profanity-laced message suggested an “ivermectin enema.”
That Thursday, four days after Purnell’s firing, an OSHA inspector arrived unannounced.
Eddie Kinkade, Adrian School Board chair, was consulted before state inspectors were allowed into schools for a surprise inspection in September 2021. (The Enterprise/FILE)
In her account, she said Wortman delayed the start of her inspection by at least 45 minutes.
He asked to see her credentials and then wanted to talk to her supervisor.
In his responses to the Enterprise, Wortman said that he wanted to be sure who he was letting into the school, given the volume of threats.
“I then called the board chair to make him aware and asked for his assistance with the inspection,” Wortman said. “Once the board chair gave the go ahead, I pleasantly gave [the inspector] a tour of all our facilities.”
Wortman said, “I did not intentionally delay the inspection.” Referring to Board Chair Eddie Kinkade, Wortman wrote to the Enterprise that “Eddie was in the middle of harvest and needed time to get to the school.”
The inspector said in her report that “by the time of the walk through, it was no secret of OR-OSHA’s presence at the facility.”
One employee said she received a “mid-morning communication” and “that they were notified that OR-OSHA was on site and to put on masks and have students put masks on.”
The state inspection went over two days.
“Upon arrival the second day to conduct additional interviews, the teachers and the school board chair were meeting in the gym. The school board chair seemed to be conducting the meeting and was not wearing a mask,” the inspector wrote.
A week later, the school board issued a four-paragraph statement declaring that “wants to affirm our commitment to following the governor’s mandate requiring the use of face coverings in school.”
On Oct. 27, Oregon OSHA cited the Adrian School District for the masks and three administrative matters. The largest fine paid to date by any of Oregon’s school systems for Covid violations was $200.
Meyer said students and staff are generally following Covid requirements.
“The kids are very good,” she said. “If I walk down the hallway, they’re doing a really good job of knowing they need to be in school.”
A few students – the district won’t specify the number – are no longer attending school in person over their refusal to wear masks.
Wortman said he supports “the efforts of the district ensuring students and staff wear a mask” and he treats students “with respect and ask them respectfully to put their mask on. They comply and are overall great students.”
Addressing his role in the mask controversy, Wortman wrote, “As a leader in the district, I understand my role and have reflected, learned and grew.”
NEWS TIP? Send your story idea, information or suggestion by email to [email protected]
JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!