A Portland Public Schools board meeting to discuss a potential student vaccine mandate drew crowds of sign-holding, unmasked protesters who forced the Tuesday meeting online and delayed it for more than an hour.
A small number of attendees were not allowed into the PPS district building at first because they would not wear masks. Others wore masks, then took them off once inside, leading PPS board chair Michelle DePass to ask everyone to put their masks on or the meeting would end.
“I’d like to give everyone an opportunity to put a mask on, to protect staff, students, and all of us that are here,” DePass said to applause from some attendees. “If we can’t get 100% compliance, I’ll adjourn the meeting in the next two minutes.”
Some attendees did not put on masks, and DePass suspended the meeting. Some attendees started yelling, and one man stood and pointed at the board members, calling them “cowards.”
As emotions in the room became tense, Winterhaven parent Kassia Lisac grew concerned that the meeting was being taken over by people without ties to the district.
“This is not where any of the parents’ voices want to be,” Lisac, a mother of three, said. At the same time, though her 12 year old is vaccinated, she is not in support of a full vaccine mandate for all eligible students.
“We just want our kids to maybe have a little bit of time for us to see what’s going on,” she said. “...We just want it to be, maybe FDA regulated for a year, maybe a couple years.”
“Parents are not politicized in this way, we just don’t want ... we’re trying to serve the greater group of all children, not just our own,” Lisac said.
The board considered four options for a potential vaccine requirement: a mandate for students 12 and older participating in extracurricular activities; for all students 12 and older; for all students 16 and older; or no mandate.
The board also considered various exemptions, including religious and philosophical exemptions.
Board members appeared split between those who opposed a vaccine mandate and those who backed a requirement affecting all students 12 and older.
The district initially planned for a Nov. 2 vote on any vaccine mandates. But that timeline has been extended so the district can pull together more information, do more community engagement, and possibly draft an implementation plan. Further discussion and a potential vote will now take place Nov. 16.
The PPS community appeared split too, with written comments strongly in support and comments given during PPS’ listening sessions strongly against. Supporters expressed that a mandate would be good for public health, and pointed out that schools already require vaccinations against other diseases. Vaccine mandate opponents said the decision was being made too quickly, with some families indicating that they’d unenroll their students from school.
Some board members mentioned that vaccines may shorten quarantines for students.
Some PPS students noted that the district has not polled its student body. A student named Lillie said she wants the district to do everything it can to keep students and their families safe. She mentioned her immunocompromised mother and peers with younger siblings or conditions that put them at high-risk.
“I strongly believe in personal liberty, but when that personal liberty is going to inhibit other people’s safety and other people’s ability to attend school safely, then it’s no longer personal liberty and it becomes a matter of infringing on other people’s safety,” Lillie said.
Grant High School students held a short walkout Tuesday morning in support of a vaccine mandate.
“It’s a way to vote with our feet,” Lillie said, noting that last week’s student town hall on the potential mandate only featured a few student comments.
Lillie and a few other PPS students were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.
Grant student Danny said students don’t always agree with their parents. Danny said he’s heard of students getting vaccinated without their parents’ permission.
“There’s a disconnect from our students and our parental units and our families,” Danny said.
Grant student Jordan said being around other vaccinated students makes him feel safe, especially during choir and cross country.
“It feels better, it feels so much safer just to be like, we’re running close together, the rules don’t make us wear masks, but we’re vaccinated,” Jordan said.
“There’s just that, ‘but we’re vaccinated’ at the bottom of it that is such a nice, warm comforting feeling...you pass someone in the hall too close, but he’s vaccinated... you get a positive COVID case notification, you’ve been exposed, you’re vaccinated, you can come to school.”
According to Oregon Health Authority data, 77.5% of people age 12-17 in Multnomah County have been vaccinated with at least one dose. The rate is 62.1% for people who are18 to 19.
A group of teachers also showed up to the in-person school board meeting, including PPS climate specialist and union executive board member Jacque Dixon.
“I think vaccines are important, I think it’s important to explore the idea of a potential mandate, " she said.
Some parents in attendance said they were not “anti-vaxxers,” but against a COVID-19 vaccine for students.
Heather Bowden has two students in PPS. She held a sign comparing data about the disease myocarditis to COVID-19, and expressed concern about the safety of vaccinating her 12-year-old.
“There’s just no way that you should be able to mandate that my kid has to take something that can harm him to protect him from something that is not going to harm him,” Bowden said.
She also said school board members with “no medical background” shouldn’t be making decisions for her family.
Amanda Metz, a Lake Oswego parent, said she was there to support Bowden, and also out of concern that a similar mandate might be coming to her district. Her children are 13 and 11.
She said her family members have already had COVID-19, and that she believes they have immunity.
“I’m not against vaccination, let me make the choice for my family and what’s best for us, since we already fought through COVID and survived, fortunately, I think that should matter too,” Metz said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that researchers don’t know how long immunity lasts for people after they’ve had COVID-19, and the federal agency says a recent study found evidence that getting vaccinated offers better protection than having had the disease previously.
School year calendar change: Nov. 12 now a staff-only day amid shortages
Although the board didn’t take action on a vaccine mandate Tuesday, the board voted to amend the school year calendar to make Nov. 12 a staff-only day. That means students have both Veteran’s Day — Nov. 11— and the following Friday, which is Nov. 12, off from school.
The staff day will be for professional development, time for educators to adopt new curriculum and get training on classroom practices.
School board members said they received a lot of messages about the calendar change, with some families upset about the loss of a school day. PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero mentioned that staff were conflicted about the decision too.
“We’ll always prioritize student learning time, but a school system is made up of the people that work within it,” Guerrero said. “We need to invest some time in them to regroup and engage in important professional learning for a better day.”
Only one person gave public comment ahead of the vote, parent Maya von Geldern. She became emotional disputing the idea she’d heard of teachers wanting a change because they wanted a “four-day weekend.”
“Really? That’s not how it works, I know it’s not,” she said. “I also know we won’t have staff available to keep schools open on November 12 given the lack of substitutes available on a daily basis.”
The motion passed unanimously.