‘Feels like a battle they cannot win’: Emails show school districts’ concerns over mask mandates

SPOKANE, Wash.– School districts can’t choose whether or not to require masks now, but now emails obtained by 4 News Now show how concerned districts were about the mandate before it went into effect.

School districts know some parents aren’t happy about back-to-school plans. There have been many parents who expressed their discontent. However, there are some parents who do support all the safety measures schools have to take.

“Districts have been really honest in how hard that tension will be,” said Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent.

The hope for a normal school year went out the window when Governor Jay Inslee mandated masks at the end of July.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Washington to require all K-12 students, school employees to wear masks this fall

Schools now have no choice but to follow it, as it is a mandate.

“Mandates are what mandates are,” said Michael Dunn, the superintendent of the Northeast Washington Educational Service District 101 (ESD 101). ESD 101 represents more than 100 different public and private schools in Eastern Washington.

In an email Dunn sent to Reykdal dated July 16, Dunn outlined his, and other districts’, concerns about a mask mandate.

Dunn said “continuing to require masks will lead to a series of unwinnable battles, perhaps ultimately an unwinnable war.”

He went on to say that school leaders are “sensitive” and understand the public health needs, but they also worry the “mask issue… will only become further divisive… and difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.”

From what Dunn has heard from other superintendents, they also feel like the mask issue is “a battle they cannot win.”

Dunn said districts are concerned if mask requirements continue, “fights over the issue could lead to longer-term adverse impacts on their districts.” This includes levies and school board elections.

Reykdal responded to Dunn’s email saying the what Dunn said is “very consistent with the message statewide.”

“We’ve heard consistently enough that, you know, some folks are really going to have a hard time with families and communities about this,” Reykdal told 4 News Now.

Dunn sent the email on July 16th. Two weeks later, Inslee announced the mask mandate.

“I think there was some hope we could start the school year without a mask mandate. In part based on some understandable exhaustion around that,” Dunn said.

While some groups continue to push back against masks with protests, Dunn said districts have no choice but to follow the mandate.

“Sometimes you have to make really difficult choices between not great options,” Dunn said. “There’s certainly a choice to be made where we have to prioritize. And, it’s always been a paramount responsibility to prioritize the health and safety of those we serve and those who work for us.”

He added that conditions with COVID-19 have changed since he sent the concerns to Reykdal in the middle of July.

“I think people have had to look at that in a more nuanced way. Not that everyone’s jumping up and down to wear a mask, but if that’s what protects the safety and health of our students and staff, I think there’s an understanding of that.”

School districts statewide get around 80 percent of their funding from the state and federal government. If districts defy the mask mandate, Reykdal said those districts could lose state funding.

As of Monday, Reykdal told 4 News Now he’s not aware of any districts planning to test that threat.

As for the families who’ve been protesting and demanding schools “take back control” from the state, Reykdal said there are situations where the state and its health leaders make the decision.

“Boards get to make the decision on education matters. They run for the school board. They are not running for public health officer,” Reykdal added.

Dunn hopes that down the road, the mask mandate could be lifted if COVID-19 isn’t spreading as much in the community. Gov. Inslee previously said it is something they’ll look at in the future.

“I think the great hope of our superintendents and their staffs is that we can start the school year not in a contentious way with the communities that we serve,” Dunn continued. “But, in fact, with some of the excitement with the fact all our students, who want to, will be able to return to school.”

READ: Masks, social distancing, COVID protocols: Hear from 7 Spokane students about going to school in a pandemic