Oregon may have lifted most of is COVID-19 restrictions months ago, but the argument over facemasks continues in state court.

Earlier this month, former educational assistant Jennifer Morrell filed a more than $300,000 lawsuit against the Hermiston School District for trying to compel her to wear a mask.

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According to a complaint filed at Umatilla County Circuit Court by her attorney, Brent Smith, Morrell began working for Hermiston schools in 2001.

Signs remind visitors that masks are required at Portland's Prescott Elementary school in February 2022. Oregon may have lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions months ago, but the argument over facemasks continues in state court.

Signs remind visitors that masks are required at Portland's Prescott Elementary school in February 2022. Oregon may have lifted most of its COVID-19 restrictions months ago, but the argument over facemasks continues in state court.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

When the district required Morrell to begin wearing a facemask in December 2020 to comply with state law, she obtained a doctor’s note documenting an unspecified medical condition that prevented her from wearing a mask. The district agreed to let her wear a face shield instead of a mask.

As the pandemic waxed and waned in 2021, Hermiston continued to provide Morrell with accommodations.

After she contracted COVID-19 over the summer, the district allowed Morrell to continue wearing a face shield once she provided additional medical information. When the district announced that all staff needed to be vaccinated by Oct. 21, it granted Morrell a religious exemption provided she wear an N-95 facemask while at school.

Although the lawsuit states that Morrell has a “sincerely held religious belief,” it does not say specifically what belief prevented her from being vaccinated.

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Morrell met with a Hermiston assistant superintendent in October about the mask requirement, but the district wouldn’t lift it for her. The district offered to move her to a position with no student contact, but they “were all demotions,” according to the complaint.

The district transferred Morrell to a custodial position the day after the deadline, but she went on medical leave a month later. In March, the district offered her an educational assistant position and told her she would no longer have to wear a face covering, but Morrell resigned the day before she was set to return.

In the lawsuit, Smith questioned the efficacy of masks and vaccines and accused the district of retaliating against Morrell for her religious beliefs and medical conditions. Neither were specified.

“Defendant could have accommodated Plaintiff’s disability,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff posed no greater threat to the work environment than a vaccinated worker because she had recovered from Covid-19 and possessed antibodies against Covid-19, because the Covid19 vaccination does not prevent transmission of Covid-19 and because an N-95 mask and double masking does not appreciably reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19.”

Several scientific studies have shown that face masks are effective in preventing the transmission of the virus. And while complete COVID-19 immunity from vaccines can wane over time, the vaccine has remained durable in preventing serious illness.

Morrell is suing the Hermiston School District for nearly $5,000 in economic damages and another $300,000 for “emotional pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life.”

In an interview, Smith kept returning to the same point: that accommodations needed to be decided on an individual basis.

“The district and many other employers, instead of evaluating the individual employee on a case-by-case basis, just decided to have a bright-line rule,” he said. “And that’s not allowed.”

Hermiston Superintendent Tricia Mooney declined to comment.

The Hermiston School District isn’t even the first school system in Hermiston to find itself in court over pandemic restrictions. Hermiston Christian School sued Gov. Kate Brown in 2020 after the governor ordered small private schools to stay closed. The school withdrew its lawsuit in 2021 after the governor allowed it to return to in-person instruction.

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