Nearly 50 superintendents from Eastern Washington school districts signed a letter Tuesday calling on state leaders to lift the mask mandate for schools — although some districts are getting rid of the requirement anyway.

In southeast Washington, all Richland School District schools and facilities closed Wednesday after board members voted 3-2 on Tuesday to make face coverings optional. The board reconvened Wednesday to “plan a path forward,” according to the district.

Up north, the Kettle Falls School District voted to drop the mask mandate this week, prompting the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to issue a notice to the district to comply or risk losing state funding, according to The Spokesman-Review.

Flouting of the state’s mask rule for schools comes as other states have relaxed mask mandates in school settings and as Gov. Jay Inslee is considering a timeline for scaling back statewide indoor mask orders.

Tuesday’s letter — addressed to Inslee, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal and state Health Secretary Dr. Umair A. Shah — also requests that contact tracing responsibilities be moved away from local districts to the state Department of Health.

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Citing declining case counts and hospitalizations and feedback from districts, Reykdal last week requested the statewide mask mandate for students in schools be rescinded to allow local health officials to make that decision instead.

OSPI spokesperson Katy Payne said Wednesday that the superintendent is not calling for an immediate end to the requirement. He is expecting Inslee, set to give a news conference Thursday, to announce a date for when the statewide mandate will lift.

“While it’s still in place, all school districts will be required to continue following current law and ensuring all students, staff and visitors are masked while indoors,” she said.

Reykdal filed an emergency rule in August that gives school districts failing to comply with the state’s COVID-19 health mandates two chances to come into compliance before they risk losing state funding. The Kettle Falls School District has until March 2 to comply before a second notice will be issued, according to The Spokesman-Review.

The superintendents who have signed on to Tuesday’s letter, including Kettle Falls’ superintendent, Michael Olsen, say there is an “urgent need” to address students’ social and emotional well-being, as well as staff fatigue in implementing “burdensome protocols.” Families, the letter states, have “grown increasingly weary and vocally critical of them.”

“As other states are now lifting many pandemic restrictions, the pressure has built that we do the same,” the letter says.

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Last week, Reykdal said he still recommends schools continue on-site rapid testing and quarantining those who test positive for the coronavirus. He noted that health officials could still require a temporary return to masks if a new variant surfaces or if COVID-19 cases rise.

“My expectations are that the local health jurisdictions can do this. They’ve always had the legal authority — I don’t expect this to be a school board decision,” he said. 

Communities across Washington have been split on the school mask mandate since it was enacted in 2020. Fights and protests have broken out at some school board meetings. Students in the Seattle area are currently protesting for stronger health and safety protocols.

In King County, pandemic policies that have been in place for months are beginning to unwind. King County Executive Dow Constantine on Wednesday announced that restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms in the county will no longer be required to check patrons’ vaccination status beginning March 1.

CORRECTION: Superintendent Michael Olsen’s name was misspelled in an early version of this story.

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