Wearing a face covering was one of the caveats set by the state Department of Health for Washington schools last year to resume in-person learning amid the pandemic. And for many, those health measures were a small price to pay for students and teachers to safely return to school after a year of remote learning.
But after months of being required to wear a mask in school, many students at Pe Ell School say they are fed up.
The idea to stage a walkout to protest the state’s mask mandate started small, with a couple of students talking about it amongst themselves during school on Tuesday. But the idea spread quickly, and at 1:35 p.m. that day, dozens of Pe Ell secondary students walked out to stand peacefully in front of the school.
“I wanted to participate because I think we shouldn’t have to wear masks if we don’t want to. It’s our right and someone needed to do something about it. We wanted to let people know that we don’t think it’s right,” said Taylor Briggs, a Pe Ell student who participated in the protest.
Kennedy Kephart, another student, said “I decided to participate because I’m sick of being told I have to wear a mask. This is about freedom. I’m standing up for my rights.”
Students remained outside during their sixth and seventh period classes chanting “no mask,” while school staff monitored from inside the school.
“We did not try to disrupt the protests and made sure that all students were safe and on campus,” said the Pe Ell School in an official statement posted to Facebook Tuesday evening.
While some students claimed school staff locked the doors shortly after they went outside, administrators stated any students participating in the protest could re-enter at any time using the intercom door.
“Between classes, we invited kids back into school. Most decided to stay outside,” said the district, adding, “a school day absence of this sort is an unexcused absence and we do take attendance each class period.”
At about 3 p.m., students said an administrator came outside and “threatened” the basketball players by stating they wouldn’t be able to play on the team if they continued to participate in the protest.
“Some kids went back in because of that threat,” said one student. Most stayed outside until school was released at 3:30 p.m., and many returned to continue protesting Wednesday morning.
“Most of the parents had no idea that they planned this,” said DeAnna Smith, whose grandson participated in both days of the protest.
“These kids come from many different backgrounds, yet come together in the fact that they do have a First Amendment right to protest. Many are of voting age this year, and more will be next year. This would be a great opportunity for civics lessons, for the school to challenge these young people to challenge (the) state government to listen to the future voters,” she said.
Photos and videos of the student protest that were posted to Facebook gained mixed messages from community members, with some applauding the students for taking action to evoke change and others expressing concern about how pushback against the mandates could negatively affect other students.
One parent told The Chronicle her kids were home from school on Tuesday due to possible COVID-19 symptoms, and while her whole family is fully vaccinated, she expressed concerns about her children returning to school if some students aren’t wearing masks.
“They are set to come back to school, but how is this a safe environment? Because of selfishness my children will have to miss school?” she said, adding that she works in health care and has seen many of her community members in her rural clinic sick with COVID-19. “I have taken care, vaccinated, and swabbed people in my community and this is the thanks the health care workers get? This is ridiculous and crazy.”
Because COVID-19 spreads from person to person, primarily through respiratory droplets, masks and other face coverings reduce the chance of an infected person spreading the infection to others, according to the state Department of Health.
While school districts are charged with enforcing the mask requirement and other COVID-19 safety mandates within its schools, the mandates themselves come from the state level.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is legally required to enforce the state’s COVID-19 mandates, according to the Pe Ell School District.
The school district said it runs the risk of losing its state funding, which accounts for about 80% of its annual budget, if it doesn’t follow the mandate.
“This mandate is not a local school board or district decision; we are required to follow this mandate,” said the school district.
Pe Ell School has made a request to OSPI and the state Department of Health “that mask wearing become optional, and our district is hoping that a decision will be made in favor of our request,” said the school district.