LA GRANDE — Central Elementary School’s gymnasium was filled with tension Wednesday night, Aug. 4.

The gym was the site of a La Grande School Board meeting packed by a group of concerned residents voicing their objections against Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s July 29 directive mandating that all students wear masks in Oregon schools this fall because of increasing COVID-19 rates.

Robin Maille, chair of the La Grande School Board, like everyone on the board, listened intently to the input.

“It was important that they be able to express their points of view,” she said.

The heart of the tense meeting was a 45-minute public forum, where all but one of about 15 speakers spoke out in opposition to the mask mandate. Many were parents, including some who said they planned to pull their children out of the La Grande School District if there is a mask mandate. Their comments often were cheered loudly by many of the nearly 150 people present, including some holding anti-mask signs.

One man speaking urged the school board to to stand up to the state and have the school district defy Brown’s mask mandate. The individual also reminded school board members that they were elected and said words to the effect of “We can recall you.’’

One early speaker became angry when the school board tried to cut him off after his three-minute speaking time limit expired. The school board let him finish, but after that a large digital timer was displayed on a screen everyone could see during the public forum.

Another man said the mask issue may create a divide similar to the one that existed in the U.S. just before the Civil War.

At the end of the meeting, which was monitored by a number of law enforcement officers, the board voted to approve a COVID-19 safety operations plan for 2021-22. The operations plan calls for students to attend school as members of cohorts, adhere to social distancing rules, wash their hands frequently, be in school much longer each day than in 2020-21 and to wear masks when indoors.

The passage of the operations plan did not trigger an angry audience, which Maille credited to La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza, who told the crowd why the district has no choice but to mandate masks.

“George did an excellent job of explaining this,” she said.

Mendoza noted the school district could be fined $500 for each violation of the mask mandate.

Assistant La Grande School District Superintendent Scott Carpenter said the public input could help lead to a lifting of the mask requirement in the future.

Carpenter said Mendoza will use the public testimony to encourage Brown to later give school districts more local control with regard to mask rules. Carpenter said if school districts receive local control, La Grande would be in a position to lift the requirement under the plan the school board approved.

Carpenter said the operation plan would allow the district to lift the requirement if COVID-19 infection rates fall to certain levels after being given local control.

Community objection

Prior to the Aug. 4 school board meeting, a group of community members gathered to voice their opinion about Brown’s recent mask mandate. Brown authorized the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to mandate mask usage in indoor settings for grades K-12, as well as for staff, volunteers and visitors.

The Union County Freedom Alliance, in collaboration with the La Grande and Union County Parents Against Masking Children Facebook group, organized the demonstration in front of Central Elementary School prior to the meeting.

More than 800 members have joined the Facebook group, with more than 50 attending the demonstration prior to the start of the meeting. By the time the meeting started, that number climbed to approximately 150 individuals in attendance for the gathering at the Central Elementary School gymnasium.

“I think at the heart of it, we really have a deep concern for our children,” said Blake Bars of the Union County Freedom Alliance. “We want to stand up for their health, safety and freedom.”

Megan Tuutau, organizer of the Facebook group, stated she will homeschool her children as opposed to sending them to school with a face covering.

“People that want to put their kids in masks, they can do that,” she said. “We’re not trying to force people to not wear masks.”

Tuutau noted the La Grande School Board is in a difficult position regarding mask mandates.

“I truly believe that our fight is above the school board,” she said. “But, that’s not going to stop us from letting them know how we feel. We can’t figure anything out if we don’t talk to each other and try to work something out.”

Bars echoed a similar sentiment, noting that people with opposing viewpoints on the mask issue ultimately want the best for students.

“At the end of the day, everybody on both sides of this is well-intentioned and wanting to do what’s right for kids’ safety,” he said.

Outlook moving forward

The extensive number of parents in attendance at the board meeting illustrates the divide between those making the decisions and those expected to follow them.

“I thought it was a great turnout and I thought it was clear the people feel very strongly that this should be a choice,” Bars said.

Stuck at a crossroads, concerned parents are considering all the options. A growing movement among those opposed to the mask mandates in school is homeschooling their children. The Union County Freedom Alliance is looking into ways it can support and help organize homeschooling options for parents this fall.

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Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer primarily covering the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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