LONGVIEW — Woodland School Board member Trish Huddleston fears that more mask mandates could be on the horizon for Washington schools, and proposed a resolution at the board’s Thursday meeting to take a stance against them before they’re announced.
Huddleston’s proposed resolution expresses unequivocal opposition to any public health mandate by federal, state or local governments including masking, vaccines, testing or social restrictions on the basis that residents have a constitutional right to make decisions about their personal health.
“I thought it would be a bold statement of us saying we don’t want that anymore,” Huddleston said. “We don’t want to watch our town be devastated and suffer like they did before.”
Woodland was the first school district in the area to return to full-time in-person lessons for elementary students, according to a November 2021 announcement. All Woodland schools operated fully in-person for the 2021-2022 school year, which began at a time when Cowlitz County COVID-19 hospitalizations were at an all-time high and the contagious delta variant was spreading, as reported by Cowlitz County Health and Human Services.
Temporary mask mandates have popped up in schools across the country over the past few months and some Bay Area counties in California are again requiring health care workers to wear masks until April, but Cowlitz County does not currently require masks. The Cowlitz County Board of Health is considering a “medical freedom resolution” that opposes COVID-19 restrictions, similar to Huddleston’s proposal.
As of August, the Washington Department of Health does not require masking, but recommends that people wear masks on public transportation, when COVID-19 hospital admission levels are high, after exposure to COVID-19 or if they test positive or display symptoms. Private businesses can choose to require masks, and local health officials can declare mask mandates in response to outbreaks.
COVID-19 vaccinations are mostly optional, but all employees at public and private K-12 schools in Washington are required to either be vaccinated or have a religious or medical exemption following an August 2021 proclamation by Governor Jay Inslee.
The board voted Thursday to table the discussion for now to give members time to consider how to adjust the proposition’s language, and will return to it at a future meeting to be determined.
Woodland School Board Vice President Jeff Wray said Huddleston’s resolution would not be very useful because government regulations override individual school board policies, and that the community might feel let down if the board promises to oppose mask mandates but is not actually able to prevent them. He also noted that resolutions are not often looked at outside of the school district, making them an ineffective form of protest.
“We can stomp our feet here in our room, but nobody will see it,” he said.
As an alternative, he suggested reaching out to like-minded members from other school boards about submitting comments to the state Legislature together.
Board member Sarah Stuart said that questioning the Department of Health is not part of the school board’s role, and that they should stick to their own area of expertise and let the Department of Health do its job protecting public health.
“If they tell people that work in the restaurant industry that they have to wash their hands, (the workers) can’t say, ‘Well, freedom, I don’t have to,’” Stuart said.
She said that while she supports personal choice, she does not believe individuals should have complete medical freedom over issues that affect other community members, such as hand washing or vaccinations.
“We have vulnerable people among us, kids and staff, and they are worthy of protecting too,” she said.
Additionally, if a student or staff member becomes sick or injured due to schools not following public health recommendations, the school district could be held liable, she said.
Board member Tom Guthrie said that he worries the uncompromising language of the resolution, which states that the board opposes “any attempt” at imposing public health mandates, could cause problems in the future because it does not give the board leeway to make judgment calls on individual situations.
“In 2018, 2019, no one saw COVID, no one had COVID, no one knew what it was,” he said. “It just came upon us, and it came upon us quick. In two years, we may have something different, maybe more devastating. We don’t know.”