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Feb. 1, 2023

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Ridgefield High students stage anti-mask walkout

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
4 Photos
Students join a small group of protesters demonstrating against mandatory masks in schools outside Ridgefield High School on Wednesday morning, Feb. 9, 2022.
Students join a small group of protesters demonstrating against mandatory masks in schools outside Ridgefield High School on Wednesday morning, Feb. 9, 2022. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — A crowd of a few dozen Ridgefield High School students gathered at the school’s campus entrance on Wednesday morning after walking out of class to protest mask mandates set by the state.

Similar protests were reported in Amboy, Battle Ground and Hockinson.

Drew Harteloo, a Ridgefield senior, helped to organize the walkout after deliberating with fellow students and seeing similar protests last week in Washougal.

“We’ve been working on this for probably two to three weeks now, but we’ve all not wanted to wear the masks for much longer than that,” Harteloo said.

At around 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, the group assembled in the school’s parking lot and walked together, unmasked, into the school building. After declining teachers’ requests to put on masks, they carried on the protest for about an hour on the sidewalk at 2630 S. Hillhurst Road just outside the school building.

A handful of adults and parents lined up just across from the students, who cheered and waved flags as passing cars honked their horns.

Harteloo, 17, said the students’ protests may continue into the coming days if they don’t see response or acknowledgment from state or county officials. “If we are given information that the mandate is going to lift, we have nothing else to protest,” he said.

Ridgefield teachers and administrators, he said, have supported their rights to protest so far.

“We’ve reached out to people like Jay Inslee and our state Superintendent (Chris) Reykdal. We haven’t heard anything back, and with us being kicked out, it’ll just give us even more motivation to send them more stuff,” Harteloo said.

A handful of other students chimed in, echoing Harteloo’s thoughts.

“Masks suck,” one student said. “We just want our rights back to make our own choices,” said another.

State leaders speak out

In Washington, all staff and students are required to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status. Last week, Clark County Public Health reported 30 new deaths from COVID-19, the highest in a seven-day period since the pandemic began.

In a press release on Wednesday, Reykdal recommended that Gov. Jay Inslee make masks a local health department decision for students in K-12 schools.

“As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials,” Reykdal said. “I recommend the governor and Department of Health change the guidance to reflect this in the coming weeks.”

Inslee said in a press conference later Wednesday afternoon that Washington will not yet be lifting its indoor masking mandate, referencing recent decisions to do so in California and a handful of other states. He did, however, acknowledge that he anticipates the omicron wave will rapidly decline, hinting to the possibility of lifting the mandate sometime soon.

“Today is not the day to lift all masking requirements. But it is no longer a matter of ‘if,’ but a matter of ‘when,’ ” Inslee said.

Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that their guidance on indoor masking has not changed. “Now is not the moment,” she said. “We continue to endorse universal masking in schools.”

“But it is a day that is rapidly approaching,” said Inslee, referencing Walensky.

Washougal protests continue

Ridgefield’s protests followed a video that went viral on Twitter last week that showed a senior at Washougal High School informing fellow students and school officials of their intent to peacefully protest the mask requirement without causing additional trouble.

The student’s words drew over a million views on Twitter and TikTok — to the point that #WashougalHSWalkOut was locally trending on both applications.

Student protests in Washougal continued on Wednesday, with a few dozen students gathering outside the school building after being told to stay outside if they wouldn’t put on a mask.

Joe Kent, a Republican candidate for Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, made an appearance at the Washougal student protest on Wednesday. On Twitter, Kent voiced his support for the students.

The majority of Ridgefield students who participated in Wednesday’s protest went home after about an hour or so of assembling outside. District spokesperson Joe Vajgrt said the absences would be marked as unexcused without a letter from a parent explaining the reason for the absence.

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