Grays Harbor School District Goes Remote After State Cracks Down on Mask Policy


It's been a busy week for Colin Nelson, the Interim Superintendent and Principal of the North River School District in Cosmopolis.

Nelson took over on Tuesday, March 1, and just three hours into the school day was notified of a Labor & Industries (L&I) complaint from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The complaint was in reference to the district's mask-optional policy, which went into effect on Feb. 15 and defies the current state indoor mask mandate for public spaces.

The decision to adopt a mask-optional policy was made in a Special Board Meeting of the North River School District Board of Directors on Feb. 14. The board voted to adopt a mask-optional policy to go into effect the following day.

Upon assuming his new role, Nelson knew the district's noncompliance with state masking policy could result in a moderate loss of funding, but he didn't expect further sanctions.

"We were likely going to lose some appropriation dollars due to the mask-optional policy that the board had. The board was OK with losing some of that money," he said. "I called Superintendent Reykdal on Tuesday, and asked him if he'd reconsider. He said we would lose the appropriation dollars, but that there would be no lasting consequences as a result of the policy."

An hour later, two representatives from L&I were at the front door asking to inspect the premises.

"Being a rural community with a small population that knows each other well, we were worried that two people walking around with clipboards would be a distraction to students and staff. We asked them to come back later, perhaps after school, and told them that we would make staff available for any questions they may have," said Nelson.

It is his understanding that L&I said they would return with a warrant to search the premises. Later that day, Nelson was then informed that L&I had sufficient evidence to find the North River School District in violation of the state mask mandate. The district then had two options: to reinstate its mask mandate and be compliant with state law, or face a fine of up to $70,000 a day for every day that the mask-optional policy remained in place.

The district's mask-optional policy will become a moot point on March 12, when indoor mask mandates will be lifted in most public settings. In the meantime, North River's sustained defiance would cost them over $600,000.

An emergency school board meeting was scheduled for the following day, Wednesday, March 2. Staff and students wore masks until the board was able to come to a decision.

Approximately 50 people attended the emergency meeting between in-person attendance and Zoom, according to Nelson. Attendees were able to share their stance on the mask-optional policy before the school board made a final decision.

"It was the overwhelming stance of those who spoke up that they felt L&I was not treating the school district fairly, and some even went so far as to call them bullies," said Nelson.

Four options for paths forward were entertained: allowing L&I to fine the district, moving spring break up to cover the time until the indoor mask mandate lifts, come to school wearing masks, or to go virtual for the remainder of the indoor mask mandate.

The board voted unanimously to move to virtual learning beginning Friday, March 4, through the end Friday, March 11.

Mask mandates in Washington will lift in most indoor settings after 11:59 p.m. on March 11, nine days earlier than previously promised. Masks will still be required in health care settings and public transit, and a mask "recommendation" will remain in place in schools.

Governor Jay Inslee announced the new guidance on Feb. 28 in response to declining case rates and hospitalizations across the West. Washington will be joined by California and Oregon in updating their masking guidance.

"While this represents another step forward for Washingtonians, we must still be mindful that many within our communities remain vulnerable. Many businesses and families will continue choosing to wear masks, because we've learned how effective they are at keeping one another safe. As we transition to this next phase, we will continue to move forward together carefully and cautiously," stated Inslee in a press release.

The North River School District will return to in-person instruction Monday, March 14 after the mask mandate is lifted. In the meantime, students, staff, and families will have to adjust to a brief period of virtual instruction.

While the decision has allowed the school district to circumvent hefty noncompliance fines, it has also brought the deficiencies of virtual instruction to the surface again.

"Those families with limited internet access, we've been working with those families to find something that satisfies state guidelines and also works for them in their setting," said Nelson.

Since the school board decided to adopt a brief period of virtual instruction, the district has received confirmation from OSPI and L&I that the district will not receive any fines or withholding of apportionment as previously threatened for noncompliance.