No masks – Maskless students asked to leave high school during Feb. 4 protest

February 2022 Posted in School, Your Health

By Stephen Floyd

Silverton High School Principal Sione Thompson (center) and Superintendent Scott Drue (right) address students at a demonstration on Feb. 4. Braden Geiger

Around two dozen students were asked to leave Silverton High School Feb. 4 during a maskless walk-in protesting state COVID-19 mandates.

Demonstrators gathered outside the school entrance that morning, prepared to disregard mandates requiring masks in all school buildings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They were met by administrators who explained, though the district supports students’ rights to protest, the school must enforce state regulations and any students who entered unmasked would be asked to leave.

Out of more than 40 protesters, 25 chose to remain unmasked and left campus for the day. Organizers of the event said on Instagram that, even though these students were “being denied their education for not wearing a mask,” the demonstration was “an amazing success.”

Rising frustration amid Omicron

The demonstration came on the heels of two opposing walkouts last month by students frustrated with the district’s COVID-19 policies. A walkout Jan. 19 protested mask mandates on the grounds masks are ineffective and students should not be forced to wear them. A Jan. 20 walkout called for a two-week return to distance learning in light of a spike in absences due to an Omicron wave.

(According to the Centers for Disease Control, a well-fitting mask protects against all COVID-19 variants.)

The Feb. 4 walk-in and the Jan. 19 walkout were both organized through the Instagram page SHSForFreedom, managed by student Avianna Willette. Video of the walk-in showed Willette telling administrators that students had to stand up because adults were not taking action.

“This is how things are going to change,” she said. “Wearing our mask is not going to make anything change.”

Protesters asked to mask-up

Superintendent Scott Drue and Principal Sione Thompson were present at the walk-in, as they had been for the walkouts. Both wore masks and did not support or oppose arguments, rather encouraged their right to demonstrate.

Thompson told students the school was obligated to enforce public health mandates in order to stay open. He said students deserve a great education and teachers are working hard to maintain in-person learning, and if those efforts continue the school can hold prom, sports events and graduation without interruption.

But Willette said, if mask mandates prevent some students from entering campus, they also prevent some students from participating in these events as well.

“We’re not going to have a normal prom, we’re not going to be able to walk on the [graduation] stage anyway,” she said. “This is the only way things are going to change, if we do something about it.”

Thompson told Willette he was proud of her and wanted to champion her concerns, but still had to ask students to leave campus if they entered unmasked.

“I’m going to respectfully ask that you mask up if you want to enter the building and go to class, and we hope that you do so,” he said.

Defiance without disruption

Willette then told protesters they were going to enter the foyer and, if asked to leave, they would do so peacefully. About 40 students entered the building and remained in the entrance for around 30 seconds, then 25 chose to leave campus while others put on masks and proceeded to class.

Outside, Willette said even though they were not in school, the decision to leave would still have an impact.

“Our school has to legally report all of this to the state, and if the state asks why this number of kids were gone, we can tell them we refused to wear a mask,” she said.

She also remarked that some students, including herself, were concerned about harassment from others if they entered campus unmasked. Before demonstrators entered the building, some students were seen flipping off protesters from inside and had to be asked to stop by school staff.

Protest concludes, efforts continue

Following the walk-in, the Silver Falls School District issued a statement saying they were impressed with the student demonstrators, who “showed immense respect while still exercising their right to peacefully assemble and protest.

“These young people modeled the reality that while we may not always agree, we can still respect one another’s viewpoints and disagree without being disagreeable.” 

Thompson also told students the district is planning some type of event in the future to facilitate further expression on the topic of COVID regulations. Details were not available from the district as of press time.

Willette said SHSForFreedom plans to continue demonstrating and gathering support, while calling on the district to change what she sees as hypocritical COVID policy enforcement. “I am fighting and will continue to fight for our right to choose what is best,” she said.

On Feb. 6, SHSForFreedom announced a march for Feb. 9 from Downtown Silverton to the high school to protest mask mandates. 

Student Grace Payton, who organized the Jan. 20 walkout in support of distance learning, said she also plans to continue organizing. She said efforts will focus on creating an Instagram page for students in quarantine who need support and encouragement from fellow classmates, as well as those struggling through the challenges of the pandemic. They also plan to initiate a letter-writing campaign lobbying the district to consider student voices when discussing the mandate.

Maskless walk-in prompts caution

Before the unmasked march to the high school entrance, officials expressed a need to protect the learning process.

Silver Falls School District Superintendent Scott Drue and Silverton Mayor Kyle Palmer issued public statements Feb. 3 speaking against actions that could disrupt school operations.

On the district’s website, Drue said, even though students on both sides have expressed strong concerns – and some district employees feel just as strongly about COVID-19 regulations – the district is obligated to enforce masks.

“Silver Falls School District and its employees are required to enforce the current mandate, and every district employee will continue to do so, regardless of their personal feelings on the issue,” he said.

Drue said, if a large number of maskless students entered the building and refused to comply, the school would be forced to halt in-person learning that day and move online.

Palmer shared Drue’s statement on Facebook and said this potential for disruption was unwarranted. He said the district has so far supported peaceful demonstrations, but demonstrations should not “threaten the operation of the school and the education of our students.”

“We encourage all interested parties with opinions on this matter to contact local and state representatives and let your voice be heard by those with the power to make the changes you desire, and not to take any action that will threaten our ability to continue to hold in-person school, extracurricular activities, and all of the other things that have made this school year such an improvement over the last,” Drue said.

Oregon to lift mask mandate

Feb. 7 the Oregon Health Authority announced the state will lift its mask mandate no later than March 31 as cases from the Omicron surge begin to decline.

The OHA said a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations indicates it will soon be safe to stop wearing masks for most Oregonians, while those at higher risk of infection are still encouraged to use masks. If rates drop faster than predicted, the mandate could be lifted prior to March 31. The press release noted Oregon, which has been strict in enforcing COVID-19 precautions, has the third-lowest infection rate among US states and the seventh-lowest death rate.

“The evidence from Oregon and around the country is clear: masks save lives by slowing the spread of COVID-19,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger. “We should see COVID-19 hospitalizations drop by the end of March because so many Oregonians are wearing masks and taking other steps to protect themselves and each other.”

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