Anti-maskers shut down Washougal School Board meeting

Washougal school officials reconvened two days later on Zoom

The Washougal School Board said it postponed a public meeting after multiple people in the audience refused to follow a state mandate requiring face coverings inside public school board meetings to help curb the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

School board members met in a closed executive session at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25, at the Washougal School District headquarters, and then held a work session. The board had planned to call its regular meeting to order at 6:30 p.m., but when they returned to the meeting room after a short break, school board members saw “a group of attendees who refused to comply with the posted health guidance and did not respond to repeated requests to wear a mask,” said Les Brown, the district’s director of communications and technology.

“After providing time for staff to clarify the health requirements and to work with the patrons to provide other options, the board ordered that the meeting room be cleared,” Brown said.

School board president Cory Chase said board members reconvened in another room to conclude the meeting.

“The board has moved to a location inside the district office due to a disruption,” Chase told members of the public during the Jan. 25 meeting. “… At this point we are going to adjourn our meeting for the night and will reschedule our regularly scheduled business meeting.”

The board reconvened via Zoom on Thursday, Jan. 27, to vote on the consent agenda from the previously scheduled meeting, and took no public comment.

“We (met via Zoom) for the special meeting at the board’s request,” Brown said.

He said he did not know if the board would vote to move to remote meetings in the future to avoid these types of disruptions.

The Washougal Moms group – a political action group that held a “tribunal” in 2021 to vote for a shadow school board – criticized the board’s decision to shut down the in-person meeting.

“They made it very apparent that they will use any excuse to shut down public meetings and not allow people to speak,” the Moms group wrote on Telegram, a social media platform favored by those on the far-right. “Cory Chase is always fishing for a reason to shut public meetings down. This is the third public meeting he has shut down, and two of them he tried to illegally restart. The board convened in a separate room to try to keep the public meeting going after shutting the public out. What they are doing is illegal and they know it. The special meetings are to ensure that we don’t come and talk and they don’t have to deal with the parents and can pass whatever they want without a word of input.”

The Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA), which serves nearly 1,500 elected school board members in Washington, notes that school board officials “must refuse admittance to anyone who refuses to wear a face covering,” including board members, staff, administrators and members of the public.

“Anyone refusing to wear/continue to wear a face covering has disrupted the meeting and made it unfeasible,” the WSSDA states in its guide to open public meetings held during the pandemic. “The board must do one of the following: remove anyone who refuses to wear a face covering … clear the room entirely and readmit all individuals not responsible for the disruption … or recess/adjourn the meeting to another place and/or time.”

The Jan. 25 incident is not the first time the Washougal School Board has had to contend with people refusing to follow public health mandates.

The board also ended a meeting early on May 11, 2021, after a woman who had refused to put a mask on and then been asked to leave the meeting began writing on district windows and board members’ cars parked outside the meeting room.

Then, on Oct. 26, 2021, the board closed its public comment period early after a speaker insisted on removing her mask while addressing the board.

“One speaker who was called up took off her face covering, which she had been wearing, and did not comply with two requests from staff assisting the board to put it back on as well as several requests by me to wear the face covering,” Chase told The Post-Record in October 2021. “The meeting attendee had previously complied with staff requests to wear her mask prior to the start of the meeting. I ended the opportunity for in-person public comment after the member of the public refused to comply with staff requests, and I attempted to call the next speaker who did not respond. We then moved on with the rest of the agenda.”

Chase said “the board values the input from the community, and wants to be sure that those who want to share are able to do so.”

“As we have stated publicly, the board encourages civil, civic discourse, and welcomes public comment,” Chase said. “We offer an opportunity for public comment via Zoom for those who are unable or unwilling to comply with the health requirements from the state, which currently require face coverings. The board also accepts comments in writing from those who would prefer to offer public comment that way.”

The school board could choose to return to virtual meetings held over Zoom.

“Currently, all open public meetings can be held in an entirely virtual format,” the WSSDA notes in its guidance to Washington school boards holding public meetings during the pandemic.

The Camas City Council currently meets in a remote format. The Camas School Board meets in-person and board members have had to ask members of the audience and public commenters to wear masks during public meetings, but have not yet had to end a meeting prematurely due to people refusing to comply with the statewide mask mandate.

As of Jan. 27, the COVID-19 transmission rate in Clark County was at its highest ever, at 2,549 cases per 100,000 residents — an increase of 343 cases per 100,000 since the week prior — and an additional 28 Clark County residents had died from COVID-19, bringing the total number of people who have died of COVID-19 locally up to 667.