The decision by Oregon’s Alsea School Board to make masks optional for students and staff a month before the state ended masks mandates will cost the district $43,000, according to the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Oregon OSHA investigated after at least eight complaints were submitted following an announcement from then-superintendent Marc Thielman that masks would be optional at schools beginning Jan. 31. The state mask mandate didn’t end until March 12.
OSHA determined that the district willfully violated the safety of staff by making masks optional a month earlier, when the omicron variant of the coronavirus was still spreading throughout the state.
“Approximately 157 employees working inside the school buildings during that time period were potentially exposed to the known health hazards of the infectious coronavirus,” according to the citation issued Feb. 22.
According to documents from the investigation, in addition to violating the mask mandate, employees reported that they were not alerted by the district when others tested positive for Covid and many didn’t know there was a mandatory Covid safety committee in the school where they could report concerns and issues.
Thielman resigned as superintendent Feb. 22 and is now running for the Republican nomination for governor.
In an interview with the Capital Chronicle Tuesday, Thielman said the fine was lower than he expected.
“When I heard it was only $43(thousand) I was cracking up,” he said.
Despite his own public statements against the statewide mask mandate in schools, Thielman insisted in interviews with OSHA that it was the board’s decision, not his, to violate the mandate.
A records request submitted to OSHA from the Capital Chronicle turned up handwritten notes detailing a phone call between Linda Patterson, health compliance officer at OSHA, and Thielman from February 7.
In the notes, Patterson writes that Thielman said it was the “position of the board” that “cloth and paper masks” were “not effective.” According to the notes Thielman said, “The board did what it needed to do.”
In her typed up closing memo detailing the employee interviews Patterson wrote, “The superintendent was clear, this was not a decision he made, it was made by the school board. He stated that he did not vote, did not need to vote, nor would he have voted.”
Thielman told the Capital Chronicle that he supported defying the mask mandate because “masks were harming kids and providing no protection. The government knew and did it anyway.”
Oregon OSHA would not say if any other fines would be imposed against the district and the Oregon Health Authority does not have any fines against the district pending, according to an agency spokesperson.
The OSHA fine comes on top of the Oregon Department of Education’s decision to temporarily suspend more than $250,000 of federal Covid-relief money available to the school.
The school district has until March 31 to appeal the OSHA decision and fine. So far, none has been submitted, according to OSHA. The district’s interim superintendent, Sean Gallagher, and the district’s five school board members didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to telephone or email messages seeking comment.
Of the 15 interviews OSHA undertook with Alsea employees, most said they continued to wear masks after Jan. 31, but only about half of other employees did. Interviewees estimated about 80% of students didn’t mask. The district had 460 students as of the 2020-21 school year.
Several district employees said they were told not to “mask shame” and that they had to follow Thielman’s order, which led to a chilling effect on reporting violations to school leaders.
The Alsea Education Association, the local union for classified staff, the Oregon Education Association and the Linn Benton Lincoln Education Service District wrote to Thielman asking him to reverse course and stay with the mandate to wear masks.
The education service district eventually withdrew its teachers and moved all programs online for the Alsea students it served. This included programming for students with disabilities, according to the documents provided by OSHA through the public records request.
The Alsea Education Association wrote to Thielman in an email that “this disregard for the law is also a disregard for the health (both physical and mental) and safety of the entire Alsea community as well as a disregard of your duty to protect the staff and students.”
Several parents emailed Thielman after the decision to make masks optional, wondering why the choice was made. One took her children out of the school building and moved them online.
“My children have a right to a safe and free education,” the parent wrote. “The board’s decision is not backed by science and removes the safety from my kid’s education.”
Fear of losing licenses
OSHA documents show that teachers were worried about losing their licenses, and Thielman falsely told them their credentials would not be on the line due to the masking decision. In an email to staff Jan. 29, Thielman assured them their licenses would not be in jeopardy, and said that the “government” was going after his license.
Richard Sugarman, a teacher in the district’s farm school program in Corvallis, was the first to reach out to the Oregon Department of Education and the Eugene office of OSHA following the district’s decision. He authorized OSHA to disclose he was among those filing a complaint.
In an email to the Education Department, Sugarman said he found the mask decision “concerning and intimidating.” He added that Thielman told staff that the Benton County sheriff and undersheriff had told staff they would cite OSHA for trespassing if agency officials walked onto the school campus.
Thielman said in Tuesday’s interview that he and a board member did go to the Benton County Sheriff’s Office to notify the agency of the district’s decision regarding masks and to ask for their help.
“We notified them of our intention to take back local control,” Thielman said. “We said we have a constitutional right to care for our children and our government is lying about the efficacy of masks.”
Thielman said they were told that the agency would see that OSHA investigators didn’t enter school buildings without a warrant.
A message left with an administrator at the sheriff’s office requesting an interview about Thielman’s statements wasn’t returned by Tuesday evening.
Documents show that OSHA investigators were prepared to inspect the Alsea schools with a warrant but ultimately did their investigation in interviews over the phone, without such a visit.
Thielman told the Capital Chronicle that the OSHA investigation was “politicized” and used as a way to scare other districts away from defying the mask mandate.
The enforcement came down on Feb. 22 – the day Thielman tendered his resignation. Thielman said his resignation was unrelated to the citation.
“It was serendipitous. I needed to leave the job to run full time for governor,” he said.
Thielman said he had been talking about resigning with school board members for several weeks.
On March 7, the board hired Sean Gallagher to serve as interim superintendent until June 30.
According to the Curry Coastal Pilot in Brookings, Gallagher resigned as superintendent at the Brookings-Harbor School District for unknown reasons in 2019 and accepted a separation agreement that paid him an estimated $100,000.
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