'Let Us Breathe'

Around 60 people — students and parents — attended a demonstration against policy changes in front of the Siuslaw School District Office Wednesday. (Photos by Zac Burtt/Siuslaw News)

Siuslaw School Board votes against making changes requiring athletes to wear masks or closing campus for lunch

(Note: This article is a follow up to "Siuslaw students and parents protest potential changes to district COVID policy" and will appear in the Saturday, Jan. 29, edition of the Siuslaw News.

Jan. 27, 2022 — On Monday, Siuslaw School District (SSD) announced that the Siuslaw School Board would be holding a special meeting to consider several district policies concerning protocol around COVID-19 and rising case rates among students and staff. The Wednesday night meeting, initially planned to be held over Zoom, was ultimately able to include an in-person component, with dozens of people and the entire school board meeting at Siuslaw Middle School.

The short notice of the meeting and its three action points led to immediate objection on social media and a protest in front of the Siuslaw District Office.

Around lunch time on Jan. 26, about 60 Siuslaw High students and some of their parents engaged in a demonstration at the corner of 21st and Oak streets. Parents begin showing up at approximately 11 a.m. with students arriving, once their lunch period started, about 30 minutes later.

SSD Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak observed from behind the group in the parking lot of the district offices.

“This is democracy in action,” he said. “This is what democracy should be.”

The protest was about the potential changes to district policy, including a mandate requiring athletes to wear masks while competing. The students’ other concern would be a change in policy that would close the high school’s campus at lunch time, preventing students from leaving school during the day. 

According to the SSD, both policy changes were attempts by the district to slow the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff.

During the protest, students chanted and held signs with messages like “Let Us Breathe,” “No More Masks” and “School Board Vote No.”

The students’ top concern appeared to be the policy that would require masking during athletic competition.

“I'm here today because last year we experienced what it was like to wear masks during events and practice,” said SHS sophomore Cort Waggoner. “It was very, very unenjoyable. I, as a wrestler, know how hard it is to wrestle with a mask on especially because it's a very extreme sport. Personally, I just I don't think that added pressure should be put on somebody who's participating in an already difficult athletic event.”

Junior Hunter Petterson was concerned because he had heard that athletes had already run into issues wearing masks while participating in athletic events.

“There was a girl in Portland last spring, a cross country runner, who collapsed while running with a mask on,” said Petterson. “How many more athletes are going to have to collapse for them to see it’s not safe?”

(Note: Summit High School cross country runner Maggie Williams collapsed during a race in April 2021. Her coach, Dave Turnbull, said at the time he believed it was due to oxygen debt caused by her mask.)

Some of the students felt the open campus they have at lunch is a responsibility they have earned and to take it away would show a lack of trust.

“I think being able to leave for lunch is part of the high school experience,” said junior Ian Sissel.  “We are given the opportunity, so we learn how to handle the responsibility correctly.”

While the protesters were loud, they were civil. The students who participated missed no class time as they attended during their lunch hour.  

That evening, some of those students and parents attended the special meeting, with additional people watching the SSD’s YouTube livestream of the event.

Siuslaw Board Chair Bob Sneddon led the meeting.

“Before I take public comment, I just want to thank you all for being here and thank everybody who has provided us with comments over the last couple of days,” he said. “I do realize it's a rather short notice meeting and that sometimes that happens.”

He added that in calling the meeting, he had decided that a virtual meeting would be most convenient for board members, staff and the community. However, thanks to district staff and Chris Rowbotham, director of IT, the meeting was able to be held in person.

The next hour of the meeting included public comment from those choosing to address the board in person. Additional comments were included in the meeting materials, which can be accessed online through www.siuslaw.k12.or.us/page/school-board and going to the “2021-2022 Board Meeting Information” tab on the left side of the page. The whole meeting can be watched on the district’s YouTube channel.

In total, 21 speakers approached the microphone with comments relating to mask usage, student behavior, district expectations, communication and more. Several people spoke from the same families, with students, teachers, parents, grandparents and more offering opinions. Many were again concerned about potential policy changes for athletes and masks and the closure of Siuslaw High School to off-campus lunch.

Several student athletes spoke up about what it feels like to wear masks while practicing and competing. Throughout all the comments of the night, people compared masks to waterboarding, putting kids in jail and “borderline child cruelty.”

Several people challenged the adults in the room to exercise while wearing masks before making the students do so.

“Masks are unhealthy during exercise, especially for long periods of time,” said SHS junior Jacob Blankenship. “When you take into account the intensity of basketball and wrestling, and then you add in a masks, it just is not right when you really think about it. Masks during exercise can leave kids like headaches or even risks, more severe side effects. When you take a look at last spring, that is something that we cannot go back to.”

Speakers also protested the shutting down of campus during lunch.

According to Grzeskowiak, “There is a significant and marked increase in COVID positive contacts and quarantines directly related to high school students leaving campus for lunch.”

However, commenters said that students socializing during lunch would still see each other before and after school.

“The lunches are the only time during the day that the kids can have a break from school and masks,” said parent Tamara Cole. “Closing the campus for lunch will not stop the kids from hanging out and getting together before school, after school and on the weekends. They can easily spread or get sick off campus as well as on campus. There is no proof that they are further exposed or exposing others during off-campus lunches.”

Another parent concern, expressed throughout the meeting and vocally during the board discussion, is that the data linking lunches to the rising SHS COVID exposure/infection numbers wasn’t shared with the community.

Parent Jennifer Waggoner said, “I would invite (the board) to ask Mr. G for the statistics that he's using to justify these policies.”

In addition, speakers felt SSD’s response to COVID exposure is different among Siuslaw elementary, middle and high schools, and that quarantine lengths differ between the schools.

Parents said this created “chaos.”

Some comments, however, were in support of the school board and current district policies. This included several teachers and community members.

The very first commenter of the night was Computer Science/Business teacher Eddie Mielke, who joined the meeting via Zoom.

“I urge this school board to please remember that your decisions affect all Siuslaw students,” he said, requesting the board take in all the perspectives in the community, not just the “very small but loud group of community agitators who feel that our school district should be molded into their own vision of public education.”

Teachers talked about student behavior around masks and how, at least in the younger grades, masks do not affect how students learn.

“For everyone who tells me masks don’t work, I don’t know what to say,” wrote SMS science teacher Amy Tregoning, who also spoke during the meeting. “If worn correctly, they can decrease chances of all of us getting sick and having to go back online. But the problem is there is a disconnect between home and school or community and school. Somewhere, someone has told kids that they don’t work, so they won't wear them correctly, which makes them inefficient.”

In written comments, retired RN Cynthia Chandler said, “It comes down to the fact that we all must take precautions to protect those of us who have health issues, those that are essential workers teaching/supporting our children/seniors and to ease the devastating effect this pandemic is on our health care providers. … I urge you to follow and extend the precautionary guidelines for all students, athletes and teachers.”

Other writers spoke of the “record high cases” right now and that mitigation efforts would help control the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

“Omicron has hit Florence like nothing before,” wrote Ian Jarman, DC RN. “The schools are obviously only as safe as the preventative measures employed and staff and student compliance with the simple requests of masking and distancing during most of the school day. … Further, I would call on the board to endorse COVID-19 vaccination as the most powerful tool in keeping COVID numbers in control.”

Several people thanked the board members for their volunteerism and willingness to serve on a local board on behalf of the community. SES fifth-grade teacher Greg Jorgenson also recognized January as School Board Appreciation Month.

As the comments came to a close, Grzeskowiak gave a brief background on the three action items on the agenda.

The first — and approved unanimously by the board after discussion — was a bell schedule adjustment which will be effective from Feb. 7 to March 18.

“All schools are experiencing shortages in substitute availability,” Grzeskowiak said. “This is also coupled with a marked increase in student absences, necessitating more time to communicate with the families of students and prepare supplemental materials. A ‘late start morning’ would provide additional preparation time for teachers and aides to be able to contact and correspond with the families of absent students.”

The resolution allows administration to shift the start of the school day as follows:

  • SHS – 9 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. (from 8:15 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.)
  • SMS – 9:10 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. (from 8:25 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.)
  • SES – no changes – maintain 8:35 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Each SHS class period will be adjusted from a 47-minute period to a 35-minute period.

Grzeskowiak presented a chart showing attendance for students, showing that on Jan. 26 alone, 101 SHS students, 50 SMS students and 65 SES students were absent. That means between 10 and 25% of each school’s student body, according to Grzeskowiak.

In addition, 11 SES staff members were COVID positive, with an additional one at SMS and two at SHS.

“We're trying to get this under control,” Grzeskowiak, describing a peak in COVID case counts. “it's been a week since I've requested that we had a meeting. And in the last three days, we've had an increase in case count with increasing absence count at the high school.”

The second action item was the closure of the SHS campus at lunch.

“Last week, we had an immediate spike across like two days,” Grzeskowiak said. “I'm just proposing a potential solution. Now it's been eight days since that's happened, and we've had no other transmissions and none of those turned positive. This was a potential solution to a problem that doesn't look like it's continuing. I suggest that the board either not bring this up or just go ahead and table this to a further day.”

Ultimately, the board voted to table the item.

After the meeting, Chair Sneddon clarified, “If a matter is ‘tabled,’ that essentially means that issue is no longer moot and merits no further action at this time. I want to make it clear that were we ever to ‘take it off the table,’ it would still have to go the public process, including putting it on a future agenda along with the accompanying public notice.”

During the discussion, Grzeskowiak said the reason to not close the campus came not from the public response but from the test results.

“It's simply due to the testing. We haven't had any of the eight kids turn positive and we haven't had any other contacts in that time,” he said. “We're waiting to see how this turns out.”

He said he was looking at numbers that showed a potential for more cases related to off-campus lunches, and that those have not materialized.

“I don't think we need to do this,” Grzeskowiak concluded.

There was some outcry during the board discussion, prompting Chair Sneddon to use his gavel and call for order.

The next item was the potential extension of indoor masks to include high school and middle school athletes.

Currently, SSD follows OSAA guidance on masking, which is that athletes are masked except while actively competing. School board members were able to see a chart of what other school districts are doing. As of Wednesday, only Lowell and McKenzie require athletes to remain masked while competing.

Board members asked several clarifying questions, including on the cancellation of several games in the past weeks due to COVID exposure and infection across SSD’s teams.

Director Brian Lacouture listed some research and compared the school’s practices to the CDC.

“To have (athletes) wear masks while they're practicing, warming up and competing is out of bounds,” he said. As he continued, he said, “One of the biggest regrets in my life as a father was allowing my children to be masked while competing in the 2020-21 school year. That is a deep held regret that I will have for the rest of my life, because that is unsafe.”

After further discussion, Chair Sneddon “moved to deny the proposal to require masking during competition and active practice as presented by staff.” This was seconded by Director Dianna Pimlott.

However, Director Frank Armendariz moved instead that the proposal be tabled, in case it needs to be considered at a later time.

Ultimately, the board unanimously voted to deny the proposal.

Director Kady Sneddon said, “Just for the record, I don't think that the kids should be masked while they're on the court. And that's coming not only as a board member, but as a wife of a coach and the parent of a child who is starting athletics.”

She also expressed dissatisfaction with the way SSD handled COVID-19 exposures with different sports teams at different grades.

“I will agree with a lot we heard tonight about being discouraged by the rollout of the protocol,” Sneddon said. “I think what this did is expose a lot of glitches in the system.”

Following the final vote, the board then engaged in a brief discussion.

Chair Sneddon began, saying, “Before we adjourn, I had some of the same thing concerns Director Sneddon said about the inconsistencies. When you're dealing with a lot of people interpreting rules, things are going to happen. What I saw between that last proposal and what we're doing now is basically it's just getting kids to follow the guidelines as much as possible.”

Many of the directors got the chance to offer comment.

Armendariz acknowledged the students who demonstrated earlier in the day, only voicing discontent that that many students gathered together were not wearing masks.

There was a brief disagreement about the effectiveness of masks at all.

Pimlott then asked, “How can we improve compliance to the policies that we're putting in place? How do we educate or make these rapid changes that we're seeing and policies and procedures over the past two years? It's very difficult to communicate those changes to all who are expected to work underneath these procedures. How can we improve in our ability to ensure that those recommendations and guidelines that we're putting in place to keep our kids in school, to keep our kids safe, to keep our staff safe and available to teach and participate with our students? How do we improve our consistency in our response?”

These will be some of the questions the SSD administration will consider in the coming weeks.

For more information about the Siuslaw School District, visit siuslaw.k12.or.us.

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