Washington K-12 schools will require students, staff to wear masks this fall

Gov. Inslee urges vaccinations, says ‘We want to keep our schools open,’ as COVID-19 cases, buoyed by highly contagious delta variant, increase again

Liz Rondeau (left) the parent of three Camas High School graduates, holds a sign stating, "Take Masks Off!" while speaking to the Camas School Board on Monday, July 26, 2021. (Screenshot by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

As they head into a third school year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, students and staff will need to mask up and continue to follow other COVID safety precautions this fall.

In a statement released last week, the Camas School District said it plans to operate full-time, five days a week in the fall, and that all students and staff will be required, per state guidelines, to wear masks at school regardless of their vaccination status.

“This is a legal requirement from the state that public schools must follow,” the district stated in its news release. “Local school districts do not have the ability to implement less restrictive requirements.”

At a July 28 press conference, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the importance of requiring masks in K-12 schools.

With the state’s rate of those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 hovering around 58 percent, Inslee said state health officials want to ensure they are protecting “one very important group that cannot use this life-saving tool” — children under the age of 12.

“We know many parents are concerned about their young kids,” Inslee said on July 28. “And we want to keep our schools open. We don’t want to see waves of this virus closing our schools. Our kids need to be in school.”

To keep children safe and help limit school closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks, Inslee said state officials decided to make masks mandatory for students and staff at all K-12 schools during the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

Camas and Washougal school district students will return to school on Aug. 31.

A few very vocal parents have approached the Camas School Board this summer to voice their opposition to the district’s masking policy.

At the board’s July 26 meeting, several community members spoke against masks mandates. Some even encouraged other parents to send their children to school without a mask this fall.

“I have asked before for you to drop mask mandates, but have lost hope that any of you will stand up and fight for families and for children’s freedom,” Camas parent Brandii Heaward told the school board members on July 26. “I encourage parents to remember your children are your children and no one else has the right to determine what is best for your family. That’s between you and God.”

Heaward encouraged parents to remove their children from the Camas School District, but said she would tell parents who kept their children in Camas schools: “It’s your decision if you send them in a mask or not. Testing (for COVID) and vaccines are your choice, too. Do not let them tell you what to do.”

Another Camas resident, Liz Rondeau, who said she had three daughters who had graduated from Camas High School and 10 grandchildren in Clark County — “every single one of them withdrawn from public schools because (public school officials are) no longer doing what’s right for the children” — brought an anti-masking sign to the July 26 Camas School Board meeting.

“The crap that has gone on in the last 500 days is unprecedented in American history,” Rondeau said. “We are American citizens first, Americans first. We are living in a country of freedom. I do not care what the current tyrant in Olympia, who has been on a power-hungry trip for the last 500 days, has to say about masks. It’s ridiculous. I am irate, so upset about so many of these encroachments. … What we’re doing tonight is asinine. Putting masks on children is asinine.”

Rondeau urged the school board to deviate from the state’s public health requirements meant to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the community: “Stand up and say ‘no’ to the state and ‘yes’ to your parents.”

Though the anti-mask parents tend to be the most vocal during recent school board meetings, many Camas parents have praised the district for its adherence to COVID-19 safety requirements.

In a letter sent to the school board on July 26, Camas parent Kevin Turner thanked the school board for relying on public health recommendations during the pandemic and said he hoped the board “will continue this reliance into the coming year.”

“Both of my sons will be attending Camas schools in the fall, and both are too young to be vaccinated,” Turner stated in his letter to the board. “Add to that the issues with vaccine denialism in our community and the increased infectiousness of the current delta variant (and likely future variants), and it would be needlessly careless to go back to pre-COVID behaviors yet. Regardless of kids’ lower mortality risk, the long-term effects on cardiac, respiratory and neurological function are too severe to forgo the minor inconvenience and significant effectiveness of masks.”

Camas families who prefer a fully remote option during the 2021-22 school year also can send their children to the district’s remote Camas Connect Academy.

Inslee: vaccination rates must increase ‘to break back of this pandemic’

Inslee and Dr. Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health, emphasized the dangers of the delta variant that now makes up a majority of COVID-19 cases in Washington state.

“We are now seeing the delta variant take hold in our state,” Shah said, adding the delta variant made up about 5 percent of COVID-19 cases in the state in June, but has appeared to be doubling nearly every week. Health officials now believe the highly contagious variant, which has caused the number of COVID-19 cases in children and young people to rise sharply across the country this summer, makes up about 90 percent of Washington’s COVID-19 cases.

The state’s COVID-19 numbers had been dropping over the spring months, but are now “going up dramatically’ due to the delta variant and the number of people who are still not able or not willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Inslee said.

“The delta variant is twice as infectious,” the governor pointed out. “And it is easily the most dangerous mutation to date. … we might think of this as a new virus in some sense.”

Inslee said state health officials hoped to be further along by now in the fight against COVID-19.

“Science … makes it very clear there is one out of this pandemic and that is more vaccinations. We have the tools to be this, to break the back of this pandemic,” Inslee said. “Too many people, although they have access to a free vaccine that we know is an effective, safe tool, we know it works, but there have been challenges getting enough people to take the vaccine.”

Inslee said the state’s per-day vaccination numbers went from a high of 60,000 in April and May to “single digits” in July.

“Those numbers need to improve dramatically if we’re going to break the back of this pandemic,” Inslee said. “But there’s not just one virus in our state … There is a second that is just as deadly and that’s misinformation. Too many of our citizens have been attacked by misinformation, much of it on social media, that has caused them to question the vaccine.”

The state has launched a new initiative, the Power of Providers (POP), that hopes health care providers can share information with their patients and help break through some of the misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Over one billion people have had the vaccine,” Inslee said. “We know that people can change their minds when given the right information, they make the decision to get the vaccine. We know they want to save the lives of their family and those around them.”

In addition to the mandatory school mask policy, the governor also is urging all Washingtonians — vaccinated or not — to wear masks while in public indoor spaces.

“We know it’s frustrating for people to even have to think about that,” Inslee said, “but that’s the situation we’re in. And it’s maddening that we have a life-saving medicine that is free and we still have to be in this position. But we can all do something about that — we can talk to loved ones about getting vaccinated.”

“The vaccines are incredibly effective,” Inslee said. “The vast, vast majority of people in the hospital, 96 percent of the people in our hospitals today (for COVID) have one thing in common: they didn’t get the vaccine.”

The more people who need intensive care unit (ICU) beds to treat severe COVID-19 infections, the fewer beds and medical workers there will be to take care of other Washingtonians who need critical care for heart attacks, traffic accidents and other, non-COVID reasons.

“We can’t afford that risk,” Inslee said. “We have to have an attitude of optimism that, as more people get the straight scoop, they’ll get this vaccine.”

Shah said protection from the COVID vaccines “is holding steady” against the delta variant, but that new studies show even vaccinated people can transmit the virus.

“The vaccines are still effective, still safe,” Shah said. “But this transmission across the state should be a wake-up call to all of us. … We know the vaccines work. We know masks work. Together, they help people stay protected.”