Molalla School Board Chair Mark Lucht cut the regular monthly meeting off before it really even started on Sept. 9 because audience members would not wear masks.
"Before the meeting, we placed signage and free masks at the door," Lucht said. "However, upon calling the meeting to order, I noticed several community members without masks. I tried to encourage the audience to put on masks, and I was planning on calling a short recess to that effect."
Lucht attempted to appeal to the audience, noting that the governor's mandate carries the weight of law, that people must be masked inside school facilities, and that if he were to proceed with the meeting and people remained unmasked, he would be putting the district and board members at risk.
"It became clear I was expressing an unpopular opinion, at which point I gaveled the meeting closed so we can regroup Saturday at 5 p.m. virtually," Lucht said. "We have time-sensitive school business to conduct before Monday.
"I took an oath to follow the laws of the state of Oregon. I can't pick and choose which ones I follow," Lucht said.
The meeting lasted less than five minutes.
At previous meetings, numerous parents and community members had spoken during the public comment period against the mask mandate and in favor of local control over such decisions.
Lucht said he values community input and that Thursday's events amounted to "the biggest challenge (he's) faced as a board member."
The community's behavior prompted Superintendent Tony Mann to write an open letter, titled "Better Together."
Mann described the scene as he visited Rural Dell Elementary School on the second day of school. He said a student arriving at Ellie Rosenthal's classroom said, "I'm so happy to be in school."
Mann went on to ask everyone to focus on our kids.
"Let's unite around kids who are eager to be in school, with their friends, learning from teachers they love. Let's believe in the future, and let's peacefully unite.
"Yes, there are differences of opinions all around us. There have always been differences in opinions. That will never change. But those differences should not become a divide. Children need us. All of our children need us. Let's be Better Together. . . for our children. Let's listen peacefully to one another. Let's be willing to agree that we disagree when needed. But please, join me in uniting around our shared belief in our children. Let's not allow our children and our schools to become the epicenter of conflict. They don't deserve it."
Mann concluded by noting that it's important to wear masks, wash hands, social distance and follow all other district safety guidelines.
"Doing these things gives us the best chance at keeping all of our students learning in school every day from teachers they love this school year," Mann said to end the letter.
At the virtual meeting Saturday, board administrator Missy Grindle read nine comments from community members, and three more individuals spoke their own comments. As opposed to previous meetings when the majority were against mask mandates, this time, seven were in favor of the mask mandates, four were against, and one did not pertain to the topic.
One speaker, Lucy Allison-Pursley, favored the mask mandates because of safety, fiscal responsibility and democracy.
On fiscal responsibility, she said, "As a taxpayer, I expect my elected and hired government officials to be good stewards and to show fiduciary responsibility. It is not a good use of school funds to pay fines for ignoring government mandates. Funds should also not go for legal wrangling to get around the requirement. The job of a public school system is to teach kids what they need to function in modern society — not to line the pockets of attorneys."
She said to end her comment, "We can live with masks, just like we do with seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, and speed limits."
Former school board member Jennifer Satter also submitted a comment in favor of masks in schools.
"Freedom is not free," Satter said. "It comes with responsibilities. We have responsibilities to each other as citizens. Our elected officials have responsibilities. Although wearing a mask may be uncomfortable, our freedoms do not grant us the right to put the health of others at risk for comfort."
Another commenter, Julie Larson, pointed out that there may be a group of parents at the meeting opposed to the mask requirement.
"This small group of parents, although loud, do not represent most Molalla River School District families," Larson said. "I believe most families in our community are intelligent enough to understand and agree with science and medical data."
Ashley Darcy, Steve Deller, Jackie Sue and Karen Salvetti spoke in favor of making masking and vaccination optional.
Darcy included a quote from Idaho Sen. Michael Crapo: "It is not government's job to mandate responsibility on our behalf. We have the intelligence and good sense to make wise consumption choices for ourselves and our children. It is up to us to do what is best for our health and our children's health."
Darcy and Sue requested the results of the survey the district had sent out before school on the topic of masks. Lucht said he would follow up on that.
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