Several hundred people protested school mask mandates on Lancaster Drive Northeast outside the Salem-Keizer School District on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As an elementary school principal in south Salem, Beth Freeborn said she saw masks get in the way of children learning.

Students who came back to Battle Creek Elementary School this fall were stressed and struggled to regulate their emotions or recognize how their peers were feeling.

“They couldn’t see our smiles to reassure them,” Freeborn said.

Many were behind on learning to read after almost a year of online classes.

”It’s more difficult to learn how to read when they can’t watch you articulating the words,” she said.

Freeborn resigned from the district earlier this month after almost two decades working in local elementary schools in part over objections to Covid-related mandates.

She was one of several hundred, children and educators who gathered outside the Salem-Keizer School District offices Tuesday morning to protest state rules requiring masks be worn in Oregon schools.

The protest comes one day after the Oregon Health Authority announced it would lift the statewide school mask mandate March 31 and return decision-making to local districts and health authorities.

State and federal health authorities continue to “strongly recommend” masks be worn in schools.

Nothing has immediately changed in Salem-Keizer, and Superintendent Christy Perry told Salem Reporter Tuesday she wants to gather public input before making a decision and expects to involve the school board.

Marion County’s health department doesn’t intend to weigh in one way or another.

“We recommend school districts make the best decisions for their school & community,” said county spokesman Chad Ball in an email.

Part of the process, Perry said, is adjusting other school health protocols like quarantine requirements for students potentially exposed to Covid at school. Currently, those protocols are written assuming students and employees wear masks.

“There’s lots of places in the system we really need to think through so I’m thankful for the time,” Perry said.

She said she’s already heard concerns from immunocompromised educators about the potential lifting of the mask requirement.

She’s also had teachers ask if there’s any room for maskless periods at school to focus on reading and phonics so students can see faces.

Asked about the educational concerns Freeborn and other former Salem-Keizer educators raised at the rally, Perry said, “I would like to really vet that with a group of experts before I comment on it.”

Masking requirements could also be subject to bargaining with the teacher union. Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said Tuesday that while she hadn’t gathered input from members yet, she didn’t expect them and the district to be at odds.

“I think our superintendent is aligned - we need safe schools. What that might look like we’re not entirely sure,” she said. Scialo-Lakeberg said the union’s position will depend on the state of the pandemic at the end of March, something difficult to predict.

Jenny Maguire, formerly a behavior specialist at Scott Elementary in Salem, holds a sign at a rally opposing mask mandates outside the Salem-Keizer School District headquarters on Feb. 8, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The Tuesday protest included former Salem-Keizer educators who resigned in recent months over objections to vaccination mandates and mask requirements. There was also broader opposition to the district’s focus on equity and inclusion, which Freeborn and others said was taking educator time away from trainings that would help them deliver more effective lessons, especially while schools were online.

Some, like former Chapman Hill Elementary School teacher Mandy Breitenstein, have gone on to organize their own homeschooling co-ops, pulling their children out of public schools.

Breitenstein, who resigned in October because she did not want to get vaccinated against Covid or provide information to seek an exemption, said her 100 Acre Academy co-op now includes 18 local students from 10 families, including three of her own.

Many are now involved with Salem Keizer We Stand Together, a local group which has organized parents and residents to speak at school board meetings in opposition to Covid-related mandates, comprehensive sex education and resolutions committing district leaders to seeking racial equity and antiracism in their decision-making.

Linda Farrington, who ran unsuccessfully for Salem-Keizer school board in 2021 as part of a conservative slate of candidates backed by the Marion + Polk First political action committee, founded the We Stand Together group last year.

Jenny Maguire, the former behavior specialist at Scott Elementary School, was among the educators who helped organize the rally.

She resigned from the district recently after 20 years working in local schools over the vaccination mandate, frustrations about students being left behind during Covid and what she described as a growing culture of top-down decision-making in the district.

“What I saw during Covid was these kids really being set up for failure,” Maguire said. Educators made home visits, but “it didn’t compensate for in-person instruction,” she said. That was especially true for students with disabilities and those with social and behavioral goals that rely on interacting with peers.

She said masks added to challenges when students returned last spring. She described elementary school students routinely getting food on masks or dropping them on the bathroom floor and later putting them back on.

Maguire said she understands people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for Covid may want to wear masks, but said that decision should be up to students and parents, not the district or state health authorities.

She said she wasn’t optimistic following the state announcement of mask mandates lifting, saying there will be local pressure to keep the mandate in place. She and other organizers also oppose any effort to lengthen quarantines or implement rules on quarantine or masking that only apply to students and school employees not vaccinated against Covid.

Maguire and others at the rally have signed up to speak at the school board meeting Tuesday night, though mask mandates and Covid protocols aren’t on the board’s agenda.

Perry said she will involve the board in decision-making on mask mandates and expects to have more details on a public input process and timeline later this week.

“It’s become a very public divide around this issue, so I’d like to hear their thoughts,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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!