NASELLE — State-mandated covid-19 protocols for school districts have created tension, anger and division between community members, parents and local district officials, including every school district in Pacific County.
The Naselle School District held its monthly school board meeting on Nov. 16 and showed that opposing sides could sit down and talk reasonably. More than a dozen parents attended the meeting to voice their displeasure, and the board allowed everyone to speak.
The hot topic of the meeting came down to two things: weekly covid-19 testing for unvaccinated winter sports athletes and questions regarding what the district planned to do if state officials handed down a vaccine mandate for all students.
Several parents, including Mary Wirkkala, voiced concern that unvaccinated students were being singled out and proposed that all winter sports athletes be tested. Her recommendation is for every athlete to be taken to the testing room for a few minutes; therefore, no one would know which student is or isn’t vaccinated.
“If you want to reduce transmission, test them all. This is so wrong. Take your athletes in one at a time, so nobody has a flag over their head; you don’t have to do anything to them. At least let them walk in, and the staff too, so that the unvaccinated aren’t being singled out.”
The other issue
The other line drawn in the sand during the meeting was what the district planned to do with additional mandates.
According to Board member Tyson Vogeler, once a mandate is handed down to the district or districts, school boards and district officials have very little they can do. He noted that the Eatonville School District tested the limit until recent weeks when it received a five-day notice to abide by mandates or have its state funding withheld.
“It’s very clear that OSPI can withhold funding,” Vogeler said. “They already have the emergency rule. They withhold it, and if you come into compliance within a month, you get all of it back. If you are out of compliance for more than a month, they start to reduce it.”
According to Vogeler’s additional comments, no district in Washington state has tested the extreme limits of the threat to withhold funding, likely out of fear.
In Washington state, approximately 75% of school funding comes from the state, with only about 25% of district funding sourced locally.
Vogeler, speaking as a former principal, noted that districts have little to no choice but to comply with the state because of that funding difference.
“As a school administrator, I was pretty outspoken that I thought Olympia legislators and OSPI over-reached into local affairs,” Vogeler said. “I have been very vocal about that, and as an assistant principal I went to Olympia and testified against the legislature.”
He also noted that he had to make decisions as an administrator in his career that conflicted with his personal views, suggesting that ultimately the district’s decision to abide or rebel may not be theirs to make.
Best defense is a good offense
Board member Chuck Hendricks provided some advice for parents: voice concerns and opposition toward state officials now before a mandate is put in place; otherwise, options are limited.
When questioned about his stance, Hendricks noted he was not in favor of mandates, and at least two other board members stated the same, including Amy Chadwick.
“As a school board director, I want to do what’s best for our students, our school, our staff and our community,” Chadwick said. “I don’t have all the information I want to have in order to make the best decision. I don’t really think there is a right decision.”
“I can tell you personally where I stand on vaccine mandates, I’m not a huge fan of it, and I think it’ll create a lot of division, as we can see here, which is heartbreaking. At the same time, our community wants us to be safe,” she added.
Regardless, some parents want the district to rebel now to send a message to the state. But the board didn’t feel that was the right decision.
Instead, suppose a mandate for student covid-19 vaccinations is in the works. In that case, Hendricks suggests the board write a formal letter to state officials, including Gov. Jay Inslee and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, with opposition, if that’s the overwhelming voice of parents and the community.
However, it is not up to Inslee or OSPI to make the covid-19 vaccine a requirement for students. That authority lies with the State Board of Health, which decides which immunizations are required to attend schools in the state — a list that presently includes measles, mumps, tetanus and Hepatitis B vaccinations.
They’re being fair
One local community member who wished to remain anonymous and who disagrees with vaccinate mandates and testing tossed praise and credit to the board.
She told the Observer, “they have done a good job of letting every person speak.”
Other districts have routinely capped public comments at three minutes, while Naselle has let many go two or three times that limit or more.
The meeting lasted just over an hour and a half, and everyone who wished to speak was allowed to do so. No one spoke out in favor of a vaccine mandate for students, but some favored a vaccine.
They noted, “it should be a choice.”
NOTE: An earlier version of this story misstated Mary Wirkkala's views on the risk of transmission by vaccinated versus unvaccinated persons.