A plan to hold a low-key Q&A session with state Sen. Ann Rivers at Felida Park escalated into a rally Thursday afternoon, with around 200 people gathering to protest against mask mandates and vaccine guidelines in Washington’s schools.
Rivers, R-La Center, seemed surprised at the turnout when she took the mic.
“I thought we were just going to have a handful of people and some coffee, and look what happened,” Rivers said to applause.
The group had gathered in response to a previous announcement from the Washington State Department of Health, which indicated that public schools will require staff and students to wear face masks when classes start in the fall.
The document — which will likely undergo updates over the summer, according to the Department of Health — also states that students must maintain a minimum of 3 feet of social distance in the classroom.
The department’s guidance aligns with current recommendations issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which highlights that all schools should layer COVID-19 prevention strategies and “prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.”
Currently, no COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for children younger than 12.
In her remarks to the crowd, Rivers stressed that she felt decisions about COVID-19 should be left to individual families. She recommended that any concerned parents build relationships with their school board members and include credible data to back up their points.
“There’s a lot of cynicism among parents because parents are looking at the data, and the decisions being made by the leaders don’t really reflect the data,” Rivers said. “I trust parents, I trust parents to keep their kids safe in the way they see fit.”
The senator addressed the group and fielded questions for around half an hour. While many of her remarks were met with support, some crowd members grew combative as Rivers grappled to convey the nuances and legality of state and local policymaking.
“The mask piece, your school board directors have no say over whether kids in the school (wear them),” Rivers explained at one point. “Only the governor and the Department of Health can change that, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news on that, because I don’t like it.”
Members of the crowd shouted responses.
“There’s a process to get rid of that!”
“It’s an emergency!”
“It’s child abuse!”
Toward the end, the structured Q&A portion of the event had devolved into shouting. At one point, a woman who later identified herself as Yanah Brennan of Vancouver climbed onto a picnic table and delivered a speech.
“I would like to say something. I think we’re all here because we know that we’re being held hostage. Our kids are being held hostage,” Brennan said. “The time that it changes is when we realize that we’re not victims, this is in our hands. Not one woman’s hands, not a bunch of dumb legislators’ hands — our hands!”
“We don’t need some bulls–t person telling us to kiss the ass of a board. We need to stand up together. We are the power!” Brennan shouted. “Stop paying your taxes, and take your kids out of school!”
The original version of Thursday’s event was organized by a trio of local mothers, building a fledgling parental rights group called We The Parents.
They deliberately didn’t post about the meetup on social media, organizer and Ridgefield mother Mary Curtis said, preferring to invite friends to what they hoped would be a small, constructive conversation with the senator through word of mouth. She extended the invitation to Rivers a week ago.
“I am not associated with the craziness. I invited maybe 15 (people),” Curtis said.
“We wanted to make sure it was not partisan at all,” Curtis added, speaking about the idea for the We The Parents group. “The only focus is kids. That’s the only focus.”
A few of the attendees carried signs criticizing mask-wearing, COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. Several wore shirts and hats showing support for former President Donald Trump.
Joey Gibson, leader of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, was in attendance, as well as Vancouver Public Schools board candidates Jorge Bailey and Michelle Belkot.