When Tori Caudell, an elementary school teacher at Terrebonne Community School, refused to wear a mask in school, she said she was standing up for “medical sovereignty.”
She called Gov. Kate Brown, who announced the mask mandate in July, a tyrant.
The position put Caudell, who has been an employee of the Redmond School District for 23 years, at the center of an emotional Redmond School Board hearing Wednesday as Superintendent Charan Cline unsuccessfully urged the board to fire the teacher.
“I have not broken any laws and by refusing the mask,” a tearful Caudell told the board. “I’m holding my constitutional rights.”
Caudell called the state’s school mask mandate child abuse, and described how wearing a mask all day makes her light-headed, foggy and keeps her from doing her best when interacting with students.
“I feel like I’m doing something wrong every time I put a mask on my face,” she said. “I feel like a traitor to everyone who fights for our country when I cover my face and my identity. By masking up at school, I am visually teaching students that it’s OK to be silenced.”
After listening to testimony and rebuttals from Caudell and Cline in a public hearing requested by Caudell, the school board voted 3-2 to reject the superintendent’s recommendation.
The board members who voted against the termination asked that the school district come up with a creative way to retain the teacher.
Prior to the vote, Cline said the district and school’s principal tried to get Caudell to comply with the rule over the course of a week.
He said that during a meeting with the district’s human resources director and two teachers union representatives, Caudell reported no medical condition or other disability that would allow her to wear a face shield instead of a mask.
After continuing to come to work without a mask and being sent home, Cline said the district met Caudell and her union representatives on Sept. 2 and presented her with a 20-day pre-termination notice letter.
“As a district, we are painfully aware of the controversy surrounding the new Oregon rules mandating face masks for staff and students and the required COVID-19 vaccinations for staff,” Cline said Wednesday. “We respect that many people have different opinions and perspectives about these rules, and that for many people the rules have touched a very deep nerve.”
Nevertheless, Cline said, school districts cannot pick and choose which laws to follow based on individual, political or religious opinions.
“Nor do we allow our staff to simply disregard a law they believe is unconstitutional or otherwise illegal,” he said. “It is the job of the courts to make that determination.”
Cline also cautioned the board about the precedent that would be set if it decided not to respond to Caudell’s refusal to follow the law.
He added that failure to impose consequences for Caudell’s refusal to follow the rule may make it impossible to effectively enforce.
“If we are unable to enforce the mask mandate with our employees, it may not be long before we are closing the school’s doors to in-person instruction,” he said.
The same three school board members who voted to reject the recommendation to terminate also supported a resolution in August demanding local control following the governor’s mask and vaccination mandates.
The three board members were Shawn Hartfield, the board’s chairwoman; Michael Summers, the board’s vice chair; and Keri Lopez.
Summers, who was elected in May, said that based on the influx of emails from constituents, Caudell appears to be an exceptional and dedicated teacher. He said he wanted to make sure the school district thought outside of the box in coming up with a solution for staffer.
He asked if there was anyway she could teach remotely.
“I don’t know if that’s been offered,” he said. “But I want to err on the side of relationship and sticking by our employees as best as possible in the district and letting them know that they matter after they have just gotten punched and punched and punched by COVID and by everything last year.”
Liz Goodrich, a board member who voted to terminate Caudell, wanted to refocus the board’s role in the hearing.
“What’s being discussed is did she follow direction from her supervisor, from the district office, and she did not,” Goodrich said. “And that’s what we are deciding tonight, as far as I understand our role tonight.
“And it’s not our job, I don’t think, as board members to question whether or not HR and the superintendent were creative and thought outside the box. That’s not our role. That’s operations. That’s their job.”
Hartfield agreed with Summers that there is an opportunity for creative conversations.
“Unfortunately, we got to this position, so it could create some precedent, which I don’t want to,” Hartfield said. “But I also have fear of us sitting here soon, again, with teachers that don’t want to be vaccinated or don’t want to prove that they’ve been vaccinated because of medical freedom. And we’re all going to have to think about what are we going to do then. So maybe this is the start of many things that we’re going to be faced with, unfortunately this year, thanks to these mandates.”
The board members said during the meeting that they were told they are likely the first Oregon school board to have faced a decision like this related to firing over the governor’s mandate.
“Our association recognizes the rights of local school boards to make decisions that affect their students,” said Mary Paulson, deputy executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, which provides advice, training and services to all 197 Oregon school districts. “School boards are independent — what one does is not necessarily indicative of what another might do.
“Our general advice to districts facing a situation similar to this one would be to follow the direction of the administrator they have hired to make these difficult decisions, provided that it is legally sound.”