I was recently asked a question in a Facebook group about my position on mask wearing in our schools. It hasn’t been something I’ve devoted much attention to in my campaign for one reason: The School Board doesn’t have the legal authority to make that decision.
Here’s how I answered the question and a look at my thinking on the issue:
“If elected, I will abide by my oath of office and will act to keep Puyallup Schools in compliance with state law. Failing to do so risks our ability to operate schools and could put our taxpayers at risk.
Current guidance on reopening schools is available from the Department of Health. That guidance is likely to continue to evolve and change, and the DOH recognizes that in their guidance, but today we are required to mandate masks in our school buildings. Board members do not have the legal authority to override DOH requirements. I won’t promise you something I can’t do.”
A follow up question asked if I could be trusted to challenge decisions and policies with which I disagreed. That’s an easy one to answer, and one that any of the people who’ve worked with me over the years would be able to answer immediately. Here’s what I said:
“When my sons had issues in their classroom, I addressed the problem with their teachers. When the sons’ teachers had issues in their school, I addressed the problems with their principals. When a principal was unable to address an issue, I brought it to the school board.
Advocacy is about knowing who has the power, and bringing your advocacy to them. For the last 17 years, I’ve been a passionate advocate for public education. I’ve worked with legislators of both parties, both at the state level and the federal level. My work has resulted in legislation that has changed state law, and increased access to services for tens of thousands of students across the state. In that example, yelling at school boards would have done nothing to improve access for students — the issue was with state law and with state funding levels. I developed a broad coalition of support from parents, teachers, and administrators across the state and we changed the law. Students across Washington benefitted.
When the only Federal program that provided funding for gifted education was threatened, I traveled to Washington DC and worked with advocates from across the country to make our case to members of Congress. Yelling at the school board wouldn’t have accomplished anything. Funding for the program was preserved, and OSPI was able to obtain a grant through the program that was used to create a free professional development program accessible to districts across our state. I was then able to go to districts and advocate they use this new free resource.
I’ve received awards for my advocacy work in a school by local PTAs, in our county by the Puyallup PTA Council, and in our state by the Washington Educators of the Talented and Gifted. I know all about challenging things that aren’t right, and I know that to do it effectively I have to make my case to the people who can actually do something about it.
The decision on mask wearing is not a decision the school board has the authority to make. If people are sincere about changing that, they need to address their advocacy to the people who do have that authority. When faced with injustices, that’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I will continue to do as a Director.”
I was later asked to clarify my position: “Is it your belief that the school board doesn’t have the power to make any decision on this?” This was my answer:
“I think it’s getting more likely every day that the DOH could make masking optional, rather than required, by fall. If they do, it would almost certainly come with other conditions. I would expect the DOH to be very explicit about what would be acceptable, and not allow each board to figure that out individually. If they didn’t, I would expect Directors across the state to demand better. School Boards aren’t public health departments, and aren’t comprised of public health experts. This should be a decision rooted in public health, not politics. It’s difficult to imagine any recommendation that would endorse a complete return to how things were pre-pandemic, at least not until vaccines received complete approval, including for children under 12.
I think Pierce County would be in a better position for what comes next if we were doing a better job getting more people vaccinated. Our schools will be safer when our community is safer. It’s up to the community to allow schools to “return to normal,” not up to the schools to allow the community to return to normal. We had 241 positive Covid-19 tests reported in the District during the course of the year. That’s far from a “kids don’t get it” amount, and a number that could have been greater if a mask mandate had not been in place, and absolutely would have been greater had other defensive measures not been in place. It’s evidence to me that what we did made a difference, and not that what we did was an overreaction.
We’ll almost certainly need to have some additional precautions in place for those who are medically vulnerable or unable to be vaccinated. Exactly what that might look like will depend on what the experts in the field recommend. In that decision, like so many others, I’ll seek out the opinions of people who know the issue better than I do and make sure they are part of the process.”
Today, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released updated guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools. One of their recommendations: “Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.” In Puyallup, our 7th graders are typically about 12 years old, which would suggest masks would still be a part of safely reopening our junior highs. Our vaccination rate is likely to inform what the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department and Washington State Department of Health recommends for our high schools and junior highs, while this guidance would suggest that masks will be a part of our elementary schools for at least a while longer.
I can’t predict what might happen between now and September. Our Summer Learning Academies will give us one look at what’s changed and what’s working. Our September opening date will also provide us additional time to see what’s working and what’s not working at schools in other states that return children to classrooms a month or more before us. Ultimately, that information will be used by health departments who set the rules that the District must follow. We might have a general framework of options from which we can choose, but we won’t be starting from a blank slate, making this decision on our own. School Directors simply don’t have that legal authority.