More than 100 parents and others congregated on the steps of Bend-La Pine Schools headquarters Tuesday afternoon, as they shoved their way through the entrance of the building for the first in-person school board meeting since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The meeting space quickly reached capacity, and Bend Police officers were on -site while the spillover crowd watched the meeting livestreamed from the foyer.
Most were protesting guidelines released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises that masks be worn by all students and staff who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Oregon has left it up to local district administrations and school boards to decide how to implement guidance from federal and state authorities, and Bend-La Pine Schools is working with public health officials to finalize its recommendations, which it plans to present to the board in August.
Steve Cook, the school district’s new superintendent, said the district will recommend following the CDC guidelines on masking for summer school beginning in early August. This includes strongly advising students in grades 6-12 and staff wear masks indoors, and recommends the same for students in grades K-5. Cook, the former superintendent of Coeur d’Alene Public Schools in Idaho, said the district does not intend to ask for proof of vaccination.
“I can tell you this, we’re not in a hurry to be the public health entity for the county, but we are going to partner with our public health group,” Cook said. “And so to that extent, those conversations are going to take some time. With regards to the fall, we feel confident we can have a pretty comprehensive approach to this by the time we have our next meeting in early August.”
Michelle Mattingly, a naturopathic physician in Bend with three children in the district, was one of the parents who urged the board to lift mask guidelines by the fall.
“I believe there’s sufficient evidence that the risks outweigh the benefits of masking healthy children,” Mattingly said. “Masking only the unvaccinated is blatant coercion, discrimination and begs for lawsuits.
“I have been treating teens this year, and it has been devastating to witness their level of anxiety, isolation, self-harm and despair. Many kids have been publicly shamed on social media for not wearing masks. It is unconscionable that we as the adults have put them in this predicament for the, quote, greater good.”
Several women wearing “Moms for Liberty” T-shirts attended to protest masks and the board’s progressive approach. Shelly Baker, chairwoman of the group’s Deschutes County chapter, said the women were there to hold the school board accountable.
“It is not the school district’s responsibility to promote a certain political ideology over another, enforce a particular worldview, boost political or activist groups or drive life -altering decisions onto students,” Baker said. “In the past, trust has been extended. This trust has been broken, and we will not be fooled any longer.”
There were heavy cheers for each of the speakers, and cheers were also heard from the crowd watching the meeting from the foyer. Throughout the meeting there were heated moments between the crowd and board members.
Meanwhile, the board swore in its newly elected members, including its first Indigenous and first Black board members.
Carrie McPherson -Douglass, an incumbent, and newcomers Marcus LeGrand, Janet Sarai Llerandi and Shirley Olson were Democrat-endorsed candidates in the unusually contentious school board race. They were victorious over their Republican-endorsed opponents in May and have prioritized advancing racial and economic equity in schools. The conservative candidates’ criticisms over how schools teach issues of race became central to their campaigns.
Melissa Barnes Dholakia was chosen to be the board’s chairwoman, and LeGrand was tapped as vice-chair. LeGrand served on the district’s budget committee and is a co-founder of the The Father’s Group, a Bend education nonprofit primarily led by Black fathers.
Llerandi and others addressed the crowd and anger directed toward the board.
“My advice to all of you folks that continue to show up in support of your passions is to come in with an open mind and come in with a spirit of engaging rather than telling so that we can have honest conversations and that we can discuss the actual issues that are at hand,” Llerandi said.
LeGrand challenged the community.
“Don’t just bark words at people,” he said. “What do you want to do about it? But at the same time you better come with a solution and you better come with action.”