ALSEA, Ore. — A western Oregon school board in a small, rural district that voted to defy state mask-wearing requirements will lose federal COVID-19 relief funds, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
Department of Education Director Colt Gill wrote to Alsea School District Superintendent Marc Thielman and board chairman Ron Koetz this week saying federal COVID-19 funding “requires school districts to comply with all state laws and regulations,” The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
Oregon reinstated mask requirements for schools in August. Thielman, who is also running for governor of Oregon as a Republican, announced last week that the school board unanimously approved a resolution that makes wearing masks optional for staff, teachers and students, except while riding buses.
“The decision comes from the overwhelming quantitative and qualitative data and scientific evidence that masking has had little to no significant effect at slowing the spread” of the omicron variant of COVID-19, Thielman said, although health experts recommend wearing higher-quality masks, such as N95s, specifically to help stop omicron’s spread.
The mask-optional policy was set to go into effect on Monday, but Alsea schools are closed this week because of COVID-19 cases among staff, officials said.
The superintendent also said the omicron wave that created Alsea schools’ staff shortage occurred when they were still enforcing masking.
But, on Jan. 4, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division issued a $420 fine to the Alsea district for failing to ensure mask compliance, records show. The agency has received more complaints about the district and is evaluating next steps, spokesperson Aaron Corvin said.
It’s rare for the Oregon Department of Education to withhold money from a school district over a state regulations and laws dispute.
“We can say for certain that no state funds have been withheld from any district over the past decade,” department spokesperson Peter Rudy said. “We are not aware of any instances of federal funds being withheld over that period, either.”
Alsea is the second Oregon district to be “found willfully out of compliance with the face-covering rules,” according to state officials. After Adrian School District in eastern Oregon was fined by Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, the district returned to following the school mask mandate.
Thielman said that Alsea’s suspended Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds amount to about $180,000, “but we have the next three years to spend it.” He said he’s confident guidance from state agencies will have changed by then.
In order for Alsea School District to receive the funds, ODE said the district must send a letter by Jan. 31 to the department explaining how the district will comply with state mandates, KOIN-TV reported.