Residents protest mask mandate

Benny Westcott

A parking lot full of people, with crowds spilling into the streets, showed up at the Sweet Home district office on Monday evening, Aug. 9, brandishing signs and making their voices heard in regard to Oregon’s recent mask mandate in K-12 schools for the upcoming school year.

The crowd, which was listening to an audio version of the board meeting outside the building, cheered when the board unanimously passed a petition to Gov. Kate Brown to rescind the mask mandate and support the return to local health and decision making that had previously been in effect under the June 25 recovery order.

Voting in favor of the resolution were Jason Redick, Mike Reynolds, Debra Brown, Janice Albert and Sara Hoffman. Jim Gourley abstained because he was not present at the first part of the meeting to hear public testimony in regards to the issue.

On July 29, Gov. Brown directed the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education to create a rule requiring face coverings in all indoor school settings, both public and private, for all individuals two years and older, including all students, staff, contractors, volunteers and visitors.

An email sent out by ODE noted that “this decision is in response to the sharp uptick in the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon and the emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19.”

The resolution approved at the Aug. 9 meeting tells the governor that the Sweet Home School Board “supports the June 25 recovery order that returns governance to a local decision-making model so that communities can make the health and safety decisions that serve their students best.”

The resolution continues by saying that “the board recognizes we want our schools to be safe and welcoming to all students, staff and parents. The mask mandate divides the community and compels many families to consider withdrawing students from in-person instruction. The board’s goal is to keep students in school and supply them with the best academic, athletic/activities and wrap-around support services possible, while keeping students, staff, and families safe.

“We want students to be able to experience school, smiling, grinning and even frowning. We want students to be able to communicate and express themselves openly and freely. And we welcome, respect, and support students and staff who feel more safe and comfortable with masks.”

The resolution reads that “until the governor rescinds the mask mandate, the board directs its schools to use its outdoor spaces for learning and activities as much as reasonably possible.”

A total of 19 people voiced their opinions to the board at the meeting, the vast majority of which were against the mask mandate for K-12 students.

Ryan Meacham, an upcoming senior who said he recently moved to the area, said he would like to “finish his senior year off regularly with no masks.”

“This school year, I am not wearing a mask one bit. I have asthma. I cannot wear a mask,” he said.

“If you guys want to get me in trouble for it, go ahead. I’m standing my ground,” he told the board.

“It’s my senior year. And it’s all the seniors that I’m standing up for right now,” he continued. “It should be an option. A lot of people I know, they don’t want to wear a mask.”

Renice Lazama, mother of a high school junior and a second-grader in the district, and who is a district employee, testified as well.

“I am at the point now where I have children who are suffering from mental health issues, and I am suffering from health issues from the mask,” she said. “I feel that masks should be an option.”

“My girls’ grades have suffered tremendously due to the masks,” she continued. “Their asthma has been worse than ever before,”

“We should all be free to make choices, not only for ourselves, but for our children. Who are we to tell other parents, other adults, what they can and cannot do for their children and families?” Lazama said.

Dan Lusardi, a grandparent of students in the district, said, “I have children in these schools. I see how they come home day after day when they are in school, tired and exhausted because they have to wear the masks. And I believe as a grandparent I should be speaking up for these young children, because they are in a situation they have no control over.”

“If we the people just sit back and let our government take control, then we are giving up our God-given right on this land,” he added. “Our forefathers fought for freedom of choice in this country. If I say nothing, shame on me, because I am giving up what my forefathers have fought for for centuries in this land.”

“My grandchildren have no idea what I am speaking of, but as they grow up they will reflect back on those things that I said, and they will say ‘I see what Grandpa meant,'” he continued. “But it might be too late by then.”

“I do not want to be told that I have to wear a mask, or get some kind of shot, unless I choose so. And I want that right to be handed down to my grandchildren, so they have the right to choose also,” Lusardi said.

The School Board meeting was the last for Supt. Tom Yahraes, who served the Sweet Home School District for five years before recently deciding to retire from his post.

Reynolds said of Yahraes, “I have not seen a superintendent lead for five years with the enthusiasm with which you have led. It never waned the five years you were here.”

Redick added: “You set this district up on a trajectory and got us going in a direction that is attractive to these high-level candidates that we’ve seen. Nobody wants to inherit a train wreck, and that isn’t the case here in Sweet Home. And that’s directly related to you, and the hard work and the time that you have put in.”

Yahraes told the board: “It’s really been the most rewarding job in education I’ve ever had. I thank Sweet Home for supporting me. It’s been fun to work on facilities, academic improvement, and graduation rates.”

In other action, the board:

– Approved the hiring of Daphnie Collins, TOSA multi-tiered systems of support teacher for the district beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Approved the hiring of Julie Harvey, .6 counselor at Hawthorne Elementary beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Approved the hiring of Elizabeth Mann, fifth grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Approved the hiring of Jarid Adams, TOSA teacher engagement specialist at the Sweet Home High School beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Approved the hiring of Ashley Wardrop, PE teacher at Hawthorne Elementary beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Approved the hiring of Hannah Mather, TOSA counselor at Foster Elementary beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Approved the hiring of Tiffany Irwin, TOSA counselor at Sweet Home Jr. High School beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Approved the hiring of William Coltrin, temporary CTE construction tech teacher at the Sweet Home High School beginning Aug. 30, 2021.

– Tabled the appointment of new board members for Crawfordsville and Foster due to a shortage of members present to discuss the situation.