A top administrator at the Issaquah School District took to Facebook last week to rant against the state mask and vaccine orders, arguing that the virus should be allowed to “become endemic and run its course.”
“What’s the end game with all this? Masks, vaccines and limiting freedoms for how long? My family has been in Washington for seven generations and this is the first time in my life that I despise this state.
“It only took 200 years to get rid of small pox. Let the virus become endemic and run its course, it’s here to stay,” the district’s chief financial officer, Jake Kuper, wrote in response to a public service post about masking from the state health department. “So happy for the strictest Covid-19 mandates in the US. I thought liberals loved freedom…and pro choice…oh wait.”
The comments alarmed a group of Issaquah parents, who said Kuper’s statements made them question how well the district will implement protections against COVID-19. Kuper, who said in another comment on the post that he is fully vaccinated, is involved in labor bargaining on behalf of the school district, including an agreement that covers health and safety conditions for the upcoming school year. Sept. 1 is the first day of school for Issaquah and many other Seattle-area districts.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that’s a very misinformed opinion and dangerous opinion to share with others,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County during a Friday news briefing. “… Letting the virus run its course will result in an unacceptable number of people becoming ill, developing long COVID, being hospitalized and dying.”
Many safety provisions in schools, including mask orders and mandatory vaccines for all K-12 school workers, are not up to the discretion of school district administrators. They are state mandates.
Through a district spokesperson, Kuper said the comments were made from his personal account, and reflect his personal opinion and not those of his employer.
District Superintendent Ron Thiele wrote in an email to parents this week that “all operational decisions are ultimately approved by me” and that the district plans to follow all health and safety guidance from the state’s Department of Health. Asked if the district would take any disciplinary action based on Kuper’s remarks, spokesperson Lesha Engels said Kuper was exercising his First Amendment rights.
“It just casts doubt on everything,” said Tiffany Smith-Fleischman, who has three kids in the school district. “I trust my principal, I trust our custodians, but they can only do as much as the district allows.” She and other parents say they’ve been frustrated with the way the school district has responded to their safety concerns, and with the district’s decision to not offer an option for remote learning.
Smith-Fleischman said she was also concerned about the “cavalier” way Kuper spoke at a recent School Board meeting, after a teacher testified she was concerned about how the district was calculating the distance between desks. Kuper said the district was going to do “much less measuring” to enforce distancing, saying that using exact measurements is “so last year.” (He also said there will still be reminders to keep physical distance in schools.)
The state Department of Health guidelines leave this somewhat flexible: they advise schools to maintain 3 feet of distance when possible, and when not feasible, to use other approaches including adjusting ventilation to improve airflow.
At the same School Board meeting, a few parents testified against requiring masks in schools.
As the new school year begins, parents’ anxieties about their children’s health have collided with pushback against mask mandates and other safety provisions. School Board meetings have been a stage for these debates, which have spilled into the late-night hours and attracted protesters.
The rate of infection among kids has increased in a short amount of time because of the highly transmissible delta variant, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics report released earlier this month.
Cases of hospitalization and deaths due to disease caused by the coronavirus are still very low among kids, Duchin said Friday. But, he said, he’s still “very worried about what may happen when our children come back to school for in-person learning.”
In this state, the fiercest debates over prevention measures have mostly taken place in Eastern and Central Washington. On Aug. 24, several audience members at an in-person Wenatchee School Board meeting flouted Gov. Jay Inslee’s indoor mask order, appearing maskless a day after the mandate took effect. The board moved its meeting online after 25 minutes. Groups of protesters have also argued against the mask mandate in front of the Kennewick and Richland school district headquarters.
On Wednesday, the superintendent of the Kittitas School District in Central Washington said that she wouldn’t exclude students from the classroom for not wearing masks, according to the Ellensburg Daily Record newspaper.
Public employees have more freedom to express their opinions than those working in the private sector. But there are some cases in which courts have ruled in favor of public agencies disciplining employees for speech. One local example: the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Bremerton School District for its decision to prohibit a football coach from praying at the 50-yard line at the end of games.
“He acted in a public capacity, and in a way that adversely affected the religious rights, and was contrary to the district policy,” said Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at the University of Washington.
In assessing whether an employee’s words should result in discipline, the government has to weigh how much consequence the speech has for the work the employee or employer does, Spitzer said. The consequences in Kuper’s case would have been greater had he been a superintendent or a nurse, or posted the comments from the school district’s Facebook account.
“But I will say that this particular CFO has probably reduced his effectiveness and value to the district by using pretty bad judgment,” said Spitzer.
Washington state’s top education official, Chris Reykdal, warned this month that school districts will risk losing their funding if they don’t enforce the mask and vaccine orders.
Washington is one of 16 states that have required masks in schools, according to Education Week. Several other states have done the opposite, prohibiting school districts from requiring masks, though in some places, including Texas and Arkansas, enforcement of these bans are on pause while they are reviewed by courts.
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