LA GRANDE — Frustration.
That is the theme echoing throughout Union County Sheriff Cody Bowen’s personal letter to Gov. Kate Brown regarding the recent statewide mask mandate for public schools. Bowen listed his reasons for concern and called for local control on decision making in a letter sent to Brown on Friday, Aug. 13, and posted on social media.
“I believe that as Americans, we have a right to choose,” Bowen said. “This isn’t a law and it hasn’t been voted on by the people.”
Bowen, a parent himself, advocated for parents making their own decisions on whether children in school should wear masks. In the letter, Bowen wrote that he hopes to open a dialogue and speak on behalf of Union County residents.
Bowen writes that he believes the governor’s mandate is unconstitutional and that he is against threatening the livelihoods of teachers. Bowen is referring to the potential fines and loss of teaching licenses for teachers and staff who do not enforce the mandate. This has been a hot topic of debate at recent school board meetings in the area, with concerned parents and community members voicing their opposition.
“They know what’s right, but they’re scared that if they stand up, then teachers might lose their jobs,” Bowen said. “They’re trying to do what’s best and I don’t envy any of the superintendents because they’re in a terrible spot.”
At the Union and Imbler school board meetings, a majority of board members expressed their opposition to the mandate. However, with the risks facing the schools and teachers, little ground was made in negotiations between parents and board members.
The La Grande and Union school boards both voted in favor of wearing masks this school year, amid pushback from parents. Imbler makes its decision on Tuesday, Aug. 17. Bowen supports parents’ choice to send their children to school in masks, but he opposes forced mask use.
In the letter, Bowen implored Brown to listen to her constituents and stop ignoring the eastern side of the state. Bowen also stated that as sheriff, the mandate is not a law and not something that he can enforce. That being said, Bowen has a vested interest based on his constituents and his own personal opinion.
Bowen was elected as Union County Sheriff in 2020. According to Bowen, calls to his office from the community were a major reason in his decision to write the letter to the governor. Bowen said he does not expect other sheriff’s offices in the region to make similar statements, but would appreciate the support.
“I don’t think it’s one individual person’s job to put their neck on the line, but if I have to be the guy that does that and stand up for what I believe is right, then so be it,” he said.
Brown announced in July that masks will be required for anyone inside of a school in Oregon this year.
“The science and data are clear: the delta variant is in our communities, and it is more contagious,” Brown said in a statement at the time. “My priority is to ensure our kids are able to safely return to full-time in-person learning this fall, five days per week and with minimal disruptions. With many children still ineligible to be vaccinated, masks are an effective way to help keep our kids safe in the classroom, the learning environment we know serves them best.”
In a statement from the Oregon Department of Education, officials said they are working to create a rule requiring face coverings in all indoor school settings — both public and private — for all individuals age 2 and older. This includes students, staff, contractors, volunteers and visitors.
Officials say the rule will take effect upon adoption, but the exact date is unclear.
— Oregon Public Broadcasting reporters Jeff Thompson and Elizabeth Miller contributed to this report.