Student protests against the state’s mask requirement in schools have picked up steam in Lewis County, with students from multiple school districts initiating their own walkouts this week.
The mandate for Washington schools was initially issued in early August 2021 as a requirement to resume in-person learning.
The state issued a statewide indoor mask mandate on Aug. 23, 2021 as the delta and omicron variants caused COVID-19 case rates to rise.
Several state governors — including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown — recently announced plans to lift masking requirements in schools.
Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in an interview with KING 5 News on Tuesday that he would support making masks optional in schools — an option many student protesters in Lewis County have called for — but the decision is ultimately in the hands of Gov. Jay Inslee.
Inslee has not taken any defined steps toward lifting the mask mandate for Washington schools, but told KING 5 News this week that state officials are continuing to track COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths.
"We are optimistic that these numbers will continue to decline in a way that will let us revisit the mask requirements in the near future," Inslee’s office said in a statement to King 5 on Monday.
Some students in Lewis County have indicated they plan to continue protesting until the mask requirements for students are loosened.
Students in the Winlock School District organized their walkout via group chats and Facebook posts before going to peacefully protest on the vacant lot across the street from the Winlock Middle and High School on Monday.
About 70 students protested that day, earning many thumbs-up and honks of support from drivers passing by.
But because the vacant lot the students protested on belongs to Lewis County Fire District 15, Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson reportedly asked the students to move their protest to a public lot in downtown Winlock for the rest of the week — even donating several “Unmask Our Children #LetKidsBeKids” signs to their cause.
The move to the empty lot at the corner of Northeast Fir and Northeast Kerron streets meant it was more difficult for students without reliable transportation to participate, but the 32 students protesting on Tuesday said they were getting a lot more traffic at the new location. Some students broke off from the main group and took their signs through downtown Winlock, to the elementary school and to the district office.
While some drivers displayed middle fingers, the students said the support from the community has overall been positive.
The students, who were playing music and cooking food while they held up their signs, said they were prioritizing keeping their actions peaceful and cleaning up after themselves.
“Keep it peaceful, that’s the best thing we could do,” said junior Austin Hunt.
While Hunt said he opposed the state mask mandate, he said he would discourage people from getting upset with teachers and school staff for enforcing the mandate.
“Staff can’t really help out, it’s because they want to keep their jobs,” he said.
However, the student protesters did encourage school staff to push back against the state mandate.
“If everybody at the school stood up and said ‘we’re not putting our kids through this,’ we could make a change,” said sophomore Matthew Brummer.
Overall, the Winlock students were in support of making face masks optional.
“Mask if it’s your choice. If you want to wear it, go for it, if you don’t, don’t,” said sophomore Madison Rohman.
“They’re just getting too overboard with the masks and the teachers making sure that we have to do it. I’m kind of tired of being yelled at,” said eighth-grader Maquinzee Thayer.
The students said they intended to continue their protest for the rest of the week.
The Winlock School District declined to comment on the student protest.
Onalaska middle and high school students purposefully went into school without their masks at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning. When asked by school staff to put their mask on, they planned to say “no thank you” and then walk back outside to protest.
Roughly 100 students joined in Wednesday’s protest, standing on the sidewalk outside the high school with flags and signs.
“Everything’s peaceful and they’re getting their message out,” said Onalaska Superintendent Jeff Davis.
The school district didn’t have a headcount for the students and parents participating in Wednesday’s protest, but Davis said “the majority of our kids are in school with their masks like a regular day.”
The student participants will have an unexcused absence for the day on Wednesday, but Davis said they will face no other consequences for participating that day.
But that may change if the protest continues.
“Today is our protest day, tomorrow we get back to educating our students,” Davis said on Wednesday.
The district expected students to return to school — fully masked — on Thursday.
But the students aren’t keen to return to school until the mask requirement has been changed.
“We’re honestly tired of having to be forced to wear a mask when we don’t want to,” said Sam, a ninth grader.
When asked what school was like with the mask requirement, Sam answered, “It’s not the same, it kind of sucks. I can’t do anything without being forced to put the mask on.”
“We’re out here, we’re doing what we’re doing and we’re trying to make a point,” said 10th grader David Lockman.
When asked if they had a message for students in other districts who were organizing protests, Lockman said, “the way I see it, education should be a right. Obviously with the masks and everything, even if you’re doing home school, education is really important, vital, so stand up for what you believe should be your rightful education.”
The Centralia High School issued a statement recognizing the recent conversations about mask mandates at school.
“We take the opinions, thoughts and feelings very seriously. We know most students would rather not wear masks at school. We hear you and hope for a time in the near future when we are able to come to school each day without a mask. Until that time, we need to continue to abide by the requirements of our school district and our state and local health departments,” said Principal Josue Lowe in a Feb. 8 letter to students and families.
As of Wednesday morning, Centralia High School students had not initiated a protest.