Used masks fill a garbage can (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Despite losing some federal relief money, Alsea School District leaders say they will disregard Covid mandates and allow students and staff to forgo masks when they return to school buildings on Monday, Jan. 31.

Superintendent Marc Thielman, who is also a Republican gubernatorial candidate, oversees the 838 students enrolled in the district about 30 miles southwest of Corvallis. He said he would accept losing the money.

“On Monday, masks will be optional. They’ve been exhausting and harming the school climate,” he said.

On Friday, Jan. 21, Thielman, posted a letter to the district website saying that the Alsea School Board had voted to defy the state mask mandate and he would follow its guidance. Students and staff would no longer need to wear masks at the district’s two school buildings, only on the bus.

Two days later, on Sunday, Colt Gilt, director of the state Education Department, sent a letter by email to Thielman and Ron Koetz, chair of the school board, letting them know the department would not be reimbursing any of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars the district had previously been entitled to, unless they changed course. That same Sunday, Thielman posted a letter to the district site saying he had decided to close schools Monday and Tuesday due to Covid-related staff shortages. On Monday, Jan. 24, Thielman made the decision to keep schools closed through the rest of the week and said that they would reopen January 31.

Oregon has $1.7 billion available for schools from the federal relief fund to help pay for building improvements, teachers and programs to help students catch up on lost class time and learning opportunities. 

As of December 2021, Alsea had undertaken about $48,000 worth of projects that qualified for federal relief funds, and the state had reimbursed a little more than half of it. The district’s 2021-22 Budget is about $15 million.

The loss of federal funds “is like losing a quarter for us,” Thielman said.

More than half the students in the Alsea School District receive free and reduced lunch, often used as a proxy for the percentage of students from low-income households, and they reported a graduation rate of less than 50% for the class of 2021.

In his note to Thielman and Koetz, Gill wrote that the district violated two executive mandates Gill added that he had reported Thielman’s letter to the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which could fine the district anywhere from $100 to more than $125,000 and add daily fines of $250 to more than $12,500 per day for violations. 

In November, the Adrian School District was fined $11,000 for not enforcing the state’s mask mandate. Gill also reported Thielman’s letter to the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which could suspend or revoke his state license.

Thielman said the board decided to defy the mask mandate and he supported the action because the latest wave of those infected by the omicron variant of the virus is slowing and that paper and cloth masks aren’t effective enough to stop it. While cloth masks are not as effective against omicron, they are still effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of children in Oregon hospitalized with Covid is at an all time high according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

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