The first of two community town halls hosted by the Klamath County School District had to change format Wednesday evening after a crowd of more than 170 people changed the previously planned question-and-answer format.
Originally, questions submitted to the district ahead of the outdoor meeting at Henley High School were planned to be answered by district officials. But when attempts to explain portions of the administrative rule laid down by Gov. Kate Brown were met with shouts from the crowd, Superintendent Glen Szymoniak and other school leaders opted to allow those present to take the microphone and ask their own questions.
At the second community town hall at Mazama High School on Thursday, the forum allowed those in the audience to ask questions and Szymoniak tried to answer as many questions as he could.
Several people at the Wednesday meeting implored the superintendent to support “choice” and push against the governor’s executive orders, which include requirements for masks in schools and K-12 employees to be fully vaccinated by October 18.
“I’m a believer in choice,” Szymoniak said Wednesday. “However, I don’t have the choice to make that choice and still follow my job. I did the best to answer the question: That I’m responsible, and so on down the line, the principals are responsible. And the school board is ultimately responsible for making sure that we follow this.”
Blatant disregard for the governor’s orders could result in fines for the district, the stripping of licenses from educators who continually oppose, the possibility for being liable in a lawsuit and the unlikely specter of the state cutting off funding for the district, Szymoniak told the crowd.
“We’re following the rules that we have to follow,” Szymoniak said. “The school board, the county commissioners, the sheriff didn’t make these things up. We have to follow those. What I see is a whole bunch of people that are asking me and the principals to put our livelihoods at risk by not following the rules.”
Before the largely anti-mask, anti-vaccine crowd, Szymoniak said that those who in the community who support health measures were urging the district to follow the rules. He said he knew there would be OSHA complaints against the district if masks and vaccines were not standard.
“I got a complaint on my desk Monday morning about an OSHA violation at the district office,” Szymoniak said. “And so for every person who is advocating one way, we got people filing complaints the other way, and we do have to follow OSHA laws.”
Those who supported the health measures weren’t present at the meeting because they’re “probably happy with what’s going on,” he said.
On Thursday, Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber told the crowd that there will be designated zones at every school where those who wish to peacefully protest may do so without interrupting school operations. If someone is seeking to interrupt school operations then "we're going to have some issues which I hope to avoid," Kaber said.
Additionally, Thursday the superintendent said he and the school board worked with their attorney on Tuesday to find ways to obey the state requirement for K-12 employees to be fully vaccinated by October 18 "but yet create enough leeway where we don't put our employees at risk."
Employees can cite a medical or religious exception to the vaccine rule and continue to work. The medical exception would require the signature of a doctor, Szymoniak said, the religious exception though is different.
"I'm not going to question someone's God or religion," Szymoniak said. "So when they put that religious exception request in, most likely all we'll have to do for those people is to create one more level of safety or protection."
For example, those sort of protections could include having to take mask breaks or eat away from other staff.
"We're going to make it so that people don't need to lose their jobs," Szymoniak said. "We're working every angle we can."
He also noted the district's continued efforts to gain local control over health measures — which has included the passage of a resolution by the board urging the governor to give control over disease mitigation efforts to the local health department as opposed to the state.
Szymoniak said he has also encouraged principals to host vaccination clinics at their schools for those who want them. However, he said he's sought to make it a requirement that students need their parent's permission before receiving the vaccine.
A vaccine clinic slated for Henley Middle School last month was canceled because the organization that was distributing the vaccines — Klamath Open Door — had a policy that anyone 14 or older could get the vaccine without question.
"I told Open Door, they can take their vaccination clinic and move it somewhere else, because it's not worth the trust of our parents that even one kid could come in and get a shot on school grounds without parent permission," said Szymoniak. "We don't want to lose your trust."
Ashley Crawford, a mother of three Malin kindergartners who was also present at the board’s meeting last month, asked what masking requirements there might be for physical education classes on Wednesday.
"Technically, yeah," Szymoniak said Thursday, but added the district had been working on a way around that. Now, masking requirements in PE classes will be up to instructors as they know best what activities the students will be doing on any given day. "Guess what our PE teachers will decide?" he said.
Where possible, PE instructors will seek to have class outside where masks aren’t required, Szymoniak said. Additionally, students actively engaged in physical activity — whether inside or out — won’t have to wear masks. The same applies at sporting events.
Crawford also said she wanted to be able escort her young children to their class to offer support, especially on the first day of school, something she said she wasn’t able to do when she dropped off her nephew last school year for his first day of kindergarten.
“Our children deserve to not be left on a doorstep, emotionally unstable in a new environment,” Crawford said. “They deserve to be escorted by their parents like they’ve always been allowed.”
Szymoniak said that principals at each school were developing their own plans for that and that he would tell the principals of that desire at a meeting with all of them on Friday.
At the moment, there is no social distancing mandate, though they’re trying to keep distance between students where possible. A rule requiring students to be four- or six-feet apart would “automatically kick a lot of our larger schools out to hybrid (learning),” he said.
There will also be a separate space in classrooms where students can go to take a “mask break,” he said.
“The students will be able to take them off when they’re eating, drinking at lunch, recess, or outside,” Szymoniak said. “So we’re going to be looking at getting as much time without masks as possible.”
At the official conclusion of the town hall, John Rademacher, the Klamath County School Board chair, addressed the crowd, thanking them for coming and staying “when you did not like what you heard.”
Then Rademacher spoke not as a school board member but as “a person of this community.”
“I’m so sad that what we’ve done is divide our community with absolutes,” Rademacher said. “And it’s not good.”
Other community leaders, including Sheriff Chris Kaber, Commissioner Derrick DeGroot, and Jennifer Little and Valeree Lane from Klamath County Public Health, also sat in on the forum Wednesday. Much of the same group also attended Thursday.
Szymoniak, other school leaders and community leaders who attended lingered and continued to answer questions in from those in attendance for another hour after the event’s conclusion.
The first day of school is currently scheduled for Tuesday, September 7.