The Redmond School District has directed its superintendent to draft a new mask-optional COVID-19 policy by March 2, more than two weeks before Oregon lifts the statewide indoor mask mandate. We talk to Redmond Superintendent Charan Cline, who says he can’t go against a state order.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. This morning, the Oregon Health Authority announced that the indoor mask mandate for public spaces, including schools, will end earlier than planned. It will now expire on March 19th, not the end of March. It’s still later than the Redmond School Board wants. The board recently directed its superintendent to stop requiring masks in schools by March 2. It’s less than a week from today. Charan Cline is a superintendent of the district. He joins us now to talk about his options. Superintendent Cline, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Charan Cline: Good morning. Thank you for having me on.
Miller: Yeah, thanks for joining us. So this news, moving up the end of the mask mandate by about two weeks, it came just a few hours ago. Have you been in contact with the board about what this means for the Redmond School District?
Cline: Yes, the board chair gave me a call this morning. She would like to pull a meeting together to reconsider the resolution as it currently stands. We may be able to do that early next week.
Miller: So this could actually change their directive?
Cline: It is possible. Of course, the whole board would have to come together and make a vote on that, but yes, both of our unions, both our classified and our certified unions, have filed demands to bargain over the issue, and so I think that we would all like to avoid a confrontation with our unions as well. So the hope is that, if we met before the March 2nd deadline, that perhaps the board could reconsider its position. But again, that’s part of the board discussion.
Miller: I mean, that would be a little bit of a surprise given some of the rhetoric that some board members brought up, because if I’m not mistaken, you had said, ‘hey, it’s, we’re just talking about a couple more weeks, four more weeks. Just let us stick with state rules because we’re only talking about four weeks.’ And, I forget which board member it was, but from what I’ve read, at least one said, ‘even one more day is too much and it’s worth getting rid of this now to prevent even one day.’ So given that reasoning, it’s hard to see if somebody had that point of view two weeks ago, why the state’s announcement today would change that.
Cline: Well, that’s a good question. And I guess you would have to ask that board member about their thinking. And again, the board chair has just talked about pulling the other meeting to reconsider the situation. That doesn’t mean the board will reconsider the situation, or the various board members have changed their point of view on that. The sanctions, the issues that are involved with defying state law, are vast. There’s all sorts of things. Besides the idea of just simply defying state law, there’s issues of liability insurance, there’s issues of relationships with our employee groups, there’s issues of funding, sanctions from OSHA. There’s quite a bit of penalties walking into a situation like this. So I think once the board has begun to come, really begin to understand some of those levels of problems that we have with all this, they’re thinking about their position.
Miller: But didn’t you bring all those up to them? I mean, it’s not like you and others didn’t bring all that up at the meeting, right?
Cline: That’s correct. Yes. I gave them a very long list of all these things before the meeting happened in writing, and we talked about some of them during the meeting itself.
Miller: Let’s turn to the money question, the state funding or maybe it’s federal funding tied to the pandemic that the state then has been giving to districts. How much money that is earmarked for the Redmond School District might not go to you if you remove the mask mandate a few weeks early?
Cline: The emergency relief funds for the Redmond School District end up being about $11 million. Those are funds we have used for all sorts of things. We’ve used them for having standing substitutes on hand as the Omicron virus swept through our ranks. I’m able to keep subs in the building, maybe make sure we keep schools open. We’ve used this for purchasing technology. We use those for purchasing small buses for picking up homeless students. We’re using it for after school programs. And so the loss of those funds are a real loss. Not a loss of pretend funds or things we aren’t going to use. It’s stuff that we’re using now and every day and it will impact our operations If we don’t have access to them. So it’s a significant loss.
Miller: That’s money that you have already been given or $11 million dollars is still promised to you?
Cline: We’ve spent a chunk of it. It’s all done basically that the state holds it. We spend money and then we call for reimbursement as we go through things. So we’ve spent some of them but some of it’s still out there. We have three years to spend all the funding and we have plans going out about three years to use most of it.
Miller: The Alsea School District in eastern Oregon has led the way in flouting the state’s mask mandate. Have you learned anything useful from their example?
Cline: The Alsea School District is just outside of Corvallis.
Miller: Oh, I apologize for my geographical ignorance.
Cline: Yeah. It’s alright. Kind of a small district as you’re heading towards the coast, kind of in between Philomath and Waldport. Have we learned anything from them? Well, we’ve learned that even in a small rural conservative school district like Alsea, when you flout the rules, people complain. As you saw, Mark Fieldman has resigned his position. He had several complaints against him from his community members, several of his board members, or there’s a movement to recall them. So we’ve learned that yes, there’s both local and there’s state sanctions.
Miller: I should say, what he has said is he’s resigning so he can focus on his run for governor.
Cline: Well, people say a lot of things. There’s just that those things are happening, so perhaps he has resigned to run for governor, but all those things were in play as well. I would say that our school board took comfort from the fact that the state regulatory agencies move pretty slow on all this stuff. They spend a lot of time issuing warnings. They spend a lot of time saying look, come back into compliance so we don’t have to fine you. The Alsea school district hasn’t really been fined yet, not to my knowledge anyway. They’re kind of going through that warning period, but as we all know, or if you’ve dealt with state regulatory agencies, they tend to move slow, but then when they do strike, they strike hard. And so I think the slowness gives people a false sense of security, that they’re not going to actually do anything. But that’s not been my experience after working in public and over the last most of 30 years.
Miller: So I want to go through some of the arguments made by members of the board when they directed you to get rid of the mandate. The chair, Shawn Hartfield said at a recent meeting that kids are being kicked out of school. And if I understood this correctly, the point is that kids are getting kicked out because they’re not wearing masks. How often has that happened?
Cline: Well, having a mask mandate means you have to enforce a mask mandate, and occasionally we’ll get a student, usually with parents support, that says, ‘I’m not going to wear a mask.’ And so what happens is the teacher tries to reason with the person, and if the student won’t put on a mask, they get sent to the office. The principal or the dean of students will meet with the student and say, ‘Hey, we really need you to wear a mask’. Kind of work through that. Sometimes the student will wear a mask and sometimes they won’t. And if they won’t, we generally call the parent and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to need you to take your kid home until they’re willing to come back in and wear a mask’. That’s happened a fair amount of times, that we’ve had a couple of kids, not many, a few that have actually moved on to online instruction because they really didn’t want to wear a mask. We have an online program generally that, for some students, didn’t want to wear a mask beginning with, they just started that way. So students have been asked to leave and then come back when they wear their mass. It doesn’t go down on their records as a suspension or anything like that. We’re just trying to get compliance to work through that. The state’s instruction is to lead with compassion on this and we have done our best to do so.
Miller: So I want to run one more comment from a board member by you because I think it’s the most striking one. Michael Summers said, ‘Whatever legal recourse or downsides or frustrations we cause within the district, the fines, we could incur, those are all better solutions to me than another suicide’. What’s your response? I mean, the implication here is, I think it’s inescapable, what he’s saying is that masks are leading to student suicides, a very bold assertion. What’s your response?
Cline: Well, I don’t, I don’t know where Director Summers has gotten his information. He was, as they built their resolution, they claimed a lot of pieces of data, and we don’t know where that came from. The school district didn’t have any input into that resolution. I’ve double checked a couple of times with our folks. There have been student suicides in Douglas County, and they’re always tragic, but they’re not at a higher rate than they were pre-pandemic. Are there mental health issues because of masks? Well, there’s mental health issues because of the entire situation, right? I mean, kids get pulled out of school and have to go home and then they have to come back to school part time. And they’re uncertain in their lives, and it’s an uncertainty that many haven’t dealt with before. So I would say they are definitely mental health issues. Do masks lead directly to to suicides? I don’t think we have a straight line connection there. There’s definitely mental health issues, but statistically we haven’t seen an increase in suicide because of those.
Miller: And just finally, school board members, they didn’t just argue that they disagree with the reasoning behind the mask mandate. They’re saying they don’t believe in the legality of the mandate. I’m curious what you see as the repercussions of that kind of thinking, if members of a local school board are deciding for themselves what state rules or state laws they think are legal.
Cline: Well, that’s an interesting precedent, right? I mean, I think we’re seeing that all over the state. We have sheriffs who have refused to enforce rules across the state, especially about gun control, anything with that, publicly saying that they’re going to. We have county governments in part of the state who have created rules disagreeing with the state government. And I would say that our school board is continuing that trend, that they’re making a choice about what they think is legal and how they want to move through that, irrespective of what the state legislature says or court cases. As you know, this whole thing has been played out in court several times. And each time the judge in the situation has said the mandates the government puts down the governor and the OHA are legal under multiple different areas. There’s quite a movement out in this part of the country to say that some of that stuff isn’t legal, and people have a right to not agree with things, or declare things illegal themselves. I think it creates a bad precedent. I think it’s a tough precedent for the state of Oregon in terms of having a coherent state, a coherent system of government and becoming a coherent people. So I would say it’s a bit of a problem. I know a lot of this has come out from frustration. My board has been very consistent over the course of the last year about being against masks. They’ve done multiple statements to the governor in terms of letters. They’ve lobbied the OHA. They’ve been very consistent in their approach that they believe that these masks aren’t good for kids and that they believe that masks are not very helpful. Many people, including most of those I’m in contact with in the medical community, disagree with that. However, that’s where the board has been at on that. They’ve been consistent and I think they’re feeling very frustrated.
Miller: Charan Cline, Thanks for your time today.
Cline: Thanks for having me on.
Miller: Charan Cline is a superintendent of the Redmond School District.
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