ALSEA, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) will withhold federal COVID relief funds from the Alsea School District after its superintendent announced masks would be optional for students and staff, defying the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools.
Superintendent Marc Thielman, who is also running for governor of Oregon as a Republican, announced on Jan. 21 that the Alsea School Board had approved a resolution dropping the school's mask mandate. In a letter posted online, Thielman said the decision whether or not to mask would rest with parents, except while riding buses, where the federal mask mandate for public transportation applies.
"If the decision is that there is no need or concern for your child to mask, then they will be free to engage in indoor and outdoor learning without a face covering," Thielman's announcement said.
The new policy was set to go into effect Monday, but school was canceled Monday through Thursday because of COVID-related staffing shortages. The rural school district southwest of Corvallis serves about 150 students in Kindergarten through 12th grade.
"When Samaritan Health Services on Jan. 10 here in the local area announced they'll no longer allow people through their doors with cloth or paper masks, that's what caused an explosion of negative interactions between students and teachers and administrators trying to continue to force the mandate. Something has to give," Thielman told KGW.
Thielman was referring to guidance from the hospital system requiring medical-grade face masks in its hospitals, such as N95 or KN95 masks.
In response, ODE Director Colt Gill sent a letter notifying the Alsea School District that the state would be withholding approximately $324,000 of federal COVID relief funding that was set to go to the district. Gill's letter cites the requirement that school districts receiving relief funds comply with all state laws and regulations. That includes Oregon's K-12 mask mandate.
"ODE will not process any reimbursement requests for ESSER I, II and III eligible expenditures for Alsea School District at this time," the letter states. Gill requested a written response from the district detailing how it would come back into compliance with the rule by Jan. 31.
OSHA already issued a $420 citation to the school district on Jan. 4 for not following mask rules, and confirmed it is investigating new complaints related to the district's new mask-optional policy. Thielman said the district will appeal any fines, but pay up if necessary.