SLSD board votes to dismiss staff over compliance


Five teachers were dismissed from South Lane School District (SLSD) on the grounds of “insubordination and neglect of duty” while one resignation was accepted in a majority vote by the SLSD Board this Monday (Nov. 8).

The virtual meeting, which was held as a special session that morning, saw the board enter executive session twice to consider information regarding the dismissals. The board also accepted testimony from educators being considered for termination.

“We are very saddened that we ended up in this spot,” said Superintendent Yvonne Curtis. “It was my goal originally … not lose one staff member.”

The employees were dismissed in a 6-1 vote, with only board member Jerry Settelmeyer opposing.

Three Bohemia Elementary School teachers, one from Harrison Elementary School and one from London School were terminated. One Harrison Elementary School staff member’s resignation was also approved in the same vote.

The dismissals follow an Oct. 18 deadline for Oregon educators and healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, though religious and medical exceptions could be granted under the order.

All those terminated on Monday had been approved for exceptions, said Curtis.

For the nearly 50 staff in the district who had been approved for medical or religious exceptions, SLSD provided a 15-page document which included legal references and directed unvaccinated staff on additional expectations.

These expectations include wearing a KN95 mask at all times and in all locations and submitting to weekly COVID testing, two issues which were among the most heavily criticized by staff on Monday.

Testimonies

Prior to the vote, all five teachers up for dismissal took time to provide public testimony in the special session. Testimonies excoriated the school district for decisions surrounding the vaccine mandate.

Samantha Beach, a fifth-year second grade teacher at Bohemia Elementary School, began.

“I would like to make it clear that I was not recommended to you for termination because I refused to comply with the governor’s mandate, but instead because I could not in good conscience comply with the requirements that were being forced on me from this district after my exception was approved,” said Beach.

She cited ORS (Oregon Revised Statutes) 333-019-1030, which stipulates that school staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have a documented medical or religious exception, adding that her own exception had been accepted by the school district on Sept. 10.

“Therefore, I should have been in compliance with what was required of me by law,” said Beach. “Imagine my surprise when the district added its own mandates in the form of a list of eight additional requirements solely for staff with approved exceptions.”

Beach described the accommodations as a list of rules which “may look benign on the surface, but they are leading this district into a culture of discrimination and shaming.”

The requirement to wear a KN95 mask at all times and locations, for example, would mark unvaccinated staff out from others and potentially cause differential treatment from those aware of the rule, Beach explained.

“This rule is a clear violation of medical privacy,” she said.

Beach also took issue with an expectation which prohibits unvaccinated staff from removing their mask to eat or drink with others in the room, further segregating and socially isolating the unvaccinated and causing barriers to “proper hydration and nourishment” as isolation in a school environment is “almost impossible”.

She also asked that the document be removed by the superintendent as the stipulations in it were not mandatory.

“I chose not to sign this document because I believe it is pushing us down a dangerous path of segregation, harassment and violation of protected medical and religious rights,” said Beach, invoking the school’s policy of non-discrimination.

Next, Harrison Elementary School teacher Peter Bowers chastised the district for holding the meeting at 8:45 a.m. and stated he was missing work to attend the meeting.

“It’s only going to look like you’re trying to duck public scrutiny,” he said. “That’s not a very good look.”

He also complained that his access to his district email had already been cut off.

“We are not here because of this mandate,” he said. “We are here because of the unreasonable expectations foisted upon us by the superintendent.”

Bowers also criticized the requirement to wear a mask all day as discriminatory.

“According to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, my employer cannot discriminate against me by requiring additional restrictions on me based on medical or religious grounds,” he said. “And in so doing the employer is putting qualifications on my right to hold and live by my religious beliefs.”

Bowers went on to reject the condition of weekly testing, which he said contained a substance known to cause cancer and an alternative method suggested would not prove timely.

He also took issue with the district maintaining the right to impose further restrictions in the future if it deems necessary.

The coercive nature of the requirements, he said, were unacceptable.

“As it turns out, holding one’s job over their head is a powerful motivator towards compliance,” he said.

Bowers added that “to be ripped” from his classroom has caused stress and anxiety for himself as well as students.

“I don’t think that this decision is best for students,” the teacher said. “In a world that’s full of big, scary adult issues, kids need a consistent place to feel safe and cared for. I was that place. Now they’re in a place of uncertainty. This is not what I would consider putting children first.”

Regardless of vaccination status, even vaccine breakthrough cases may transmit the Delta variant effectively, making him no less a public health threat than a vaccinated person, he stated.

Bowers implored the board to consider that a vote for dismissal would be tantamount to siding with discrimination.

London School teacher Kimberly Green next spoke of her 17 years as a teacher, five of which were in London School, and her adherence to the restrictions imposed through the last year of pandemic regulations.

Green took issue with the grounds for dismissal, namely “insubordination and neglect of duty,” pointing to her compliance with regulations and continuous contact with the district regarding mandates.

She also rejected the requirement to constantly wear a mask.

“Not only is it not recommended by OSHA for more than two hours, it is not possible to teach and talk continuously with a restrictive mask for six hours or more a day, with only a 15-minute break and lunch break,” said Green.

A mask can be a particular barrier to teaching for special education students, she added.

Echoing Bowers’ criticism, Green also stated that the frequent testing requirement, which returns results in five- to seven-days’ time, was not effective and that both tests would require the release of private medical information.

Green pointed to her following of state and district protocols as a counterargument to the “neglect of duty” dismissal basis.

“I have broken no laws in this process,” she said. “I’ve been honest and true the entire time, upholding my integrity as well as my religious convictions. I have complied with each of them.”

While she had intended on signing the district’s document, she said she felt that the additional accommodations required were unreasonable.

“That document was changed so many times,” said Green. “And exceptions were made for some and not others. Some people had some things removed and initialed and others were not given those same allowances. … Those were handpicked accommodations by the district.”

Green encouraged the board to reconsider their approach.

“It could be very simple.You could remove this document and we can move on,” she said. “There is no equity in this stance. There’s only division.”

Jill Hermansen from Bohemia Elementary School also addressed the board and spoke of her 25 years of dedication to her students.

“I have put children first not only in my professional life but in my personal life as well,” she said, listing the many hours and extra duties she performed in the interest of bettering students’ lives.

“For 16 years my identity has been centered around being a speech therapist for South Lane School District,” Hermansen said. “It’s what I do. It’s what I am.”

Though accepted for a religious exception, she told of her disappoint when learning that this exception was “conditional” on signing a document of expectations that she did not feel were equitable.

As with other testimonies, Hermansen did not see the efficacy in the weekly testing mandate or a speech therapist required to wear a mask at all times.

“I am saddened by the leadership and the legal counsel in this district that more effort was not put into finding accommodations to keep valuable employees,” she said. “My religious beliefs or my beliefs about the vaccine may not coincide with your beliefs, but in equity, this doesn’t matter. …  So please stop professing you believe in equity. You are not working toward a culture of acceptance and equity. You are simply choosing communities to support while being discriminatory towards others.”

Lastly, Bohemia Elementary School teacher Lydia Shipley took the virtual floor and addressed the board directly.

“You as the board of directors are in a unique position to process what you have heard today and make decisions as to the direction moving forward for South Lane School District staff and students,” she said. “Since the start of the pandemic, South Lane has been administering policies and actions under the guise of what’s best for kids. I cannot reconcile how letting go of fixed, highly-qualified educators with years of experience in the wake of such emotion or educational loss due to the pandemic would qualify as what’s best for kids.”

Shipley went on to criticize other moves by the district such as replacing teachers with substitutes, which she characterized as “inexperienced” and “unqualified”.

“What would have been best for kids is to provide a religious exemption for teachers that didn’t subject them to a built-in discrimination that would do nothing but isolate them from their peers, identify them as unvaxxed by their excessive PPE, and leave a blank check on the table for additional restrictions as the administration sees fit,” she said.

Shipley lamented the loss of opportunity for dedicated teachers to continue investing the community’s youth and sympathized with parents who were concerned for their children’s safety.

“If my testing once a week eased their worries, I would have done it without a contract whether I agreed or disagreed with their logic,” she said. “Instead, Superintendent Curtis decided to shackle exception-seekers with a laundry list of expectations, violate their staff confidentiality by outing, involve staff in a bulk email and then follow it up with a lame apology while projecting responsibility elsewhere, hamper the process by failing to maintain an open line of communication and transparency, and finally, privately negotiated changes to expectations only to reverse them all later.”

The way in which the situation was handled “created a mountain of distrust,” she said, pointing to other districts across the state which accepted all exceptions and required minimal or no additional expectations.

“But this year, the staff, the students, the parents and the community members, as a whole, are looking to this administration led by the superintendent for leadership past the pandemic and I’m afraid they are going to have to keep looking unless you the board of directors intervene and do what is truly best for kids and right this wrong,” she ended.

Following the vote for dismissal, Board President Dustin Bengtson spoke.

“I want to thank everybody for their time and testimony today,” he said. “I know that this is one of the hardest days for us as a board and for the staff members that are affected. We appreciate everything and the work that it’s taken to get us here and it is a sad day.”

Superintendent

Response

In an interview with The Sentinel after the board meeting, Superintendent Curtis expressed disappointment with the final result. However, she said she felt the process of creating the document of expectations for unvaccinated staff had been conducted openly and shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Changes were made along the way as some raised concerns about the phrasing or requests in the document, “But each time I [changed] it, I sent the new draft to everyone and told them they would all be held to the most current version,” she said. “And then before we were done, I invited them all to sign the most current version, which everyone did except [the five who were dismissed].”

Curtis added that most responses were positive during the process, but that a handful of staff felt the changes diminished trust.

Curtis did acknowledge Shipley’s criticism regarding an “outing” with a bulk email, though.

In September, the district sent a survey out to all staff asking if they were completely vaccinated, planning to get vaccinated, or planning to apply for a medical or religious exemption. For those applying for exceptions, another survey was sent.

In this second survey, Curtis mistakenly added the emails to the “CC” box of the email instead of “BCC,” she said.

“So, they all got to see who had indicated they were going to file for an exception,” said Curtis. “So that was my goof. I saw it immediately. I apologize to them. But never was their exception request shown to anybody else.”

Not all accepted the apology, however.

On the requirement for weekly testing, the superintendent did not feel it was as ineffective as described in the testimonies because asymptomatic people can spread the virus. She also did not feel it was imposed heavy-handedly since she’s employing an honor system.

“I thought it was being gracious by saying, ‘You don’t even have to show me evidence that you registered. I’m going to trust you,’” she said.

In response to the concern that a certain cancer-causing chemical is used in one of the testing methods, Curtis said the district looked into it.

“They asked me to find out about the chemical that was on there and so I consulted our nurse who was the one working with Lane County Health and he said the chemical they’re talking about is something that’s used in anything that’s sanitized, including Band Aids,” she said. “So, if people have used Band Aids, they’ve been exposed to that chemical.”

Following this, though, the district also looked into an alternative method of testing through the University of Oregon which used saliva. However, some still took issue with this method as it required them to submit personal information and the saliva could be used by the university for other research purposes.

Additionally, the district explored using its on-site testing product BinaxNOW for the unvaccinated staff tests, but the county indicated that it did not fit suitable testing criteria. Because this seemed to be promised as an alternative for the unvaccinated staff and was subsequently removed, further distrust in the superintendent was sown.

Curtis pointed out that there was pressure from the other side of the debate as well.

“There’s a lot of staff members who had become vaccinated whether they wanted to or not because of the mandate, and they don’t think it’s fair that I’m even accepting exceptions,” she said.

In developing the additional expectation document, Curtis said the district had to take into consideration others’ perceived safety in the workplace.

Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority has told superintendents that, if allowing exceptions, then it’s up to the district to make sure it’s protecting the employees and others from contracting COVID and should require extra safety measures.

From meetings with the agencies, SLSD chose some measures which the district had already implemented and others from OHA recommendations such as N95 masking and periodic testing.

The district chose KN95 masks, which it is required to hand out for free.

“So, we do have other people in the schools that are wearing them now that we’re providing them because they wanted more protection,” said Curtis.

Overall, Curtis said she was disappointed that the district could not keep everybody.

“It saddens me that we made every effort we could to try to ensure that every staff member could meet the mandate and stay with us — and to balance the need to have all of the other staff members who did get vaccinated feel like we were keeping them safe when we were allowing unvaccinated people to be in the building,” she said. “And I’m disappointed that at the very end, after five weeks of trying everything we could, that there wasn’t a way to come up with a way that would work.”

In all, the district has lost seven employees out of around 455 to the vaccine mandate.

The additional safety precautions for unvaccinated staff included in the district’s expectations document are as follows: 

1. Wear a KN95 mask, completely covering nose and mouth, at all times in all locations. (Employees may elect to wear a fitted N95 mask at the employee’s expense.)

2. Enroll in either of these two weekly screening programs: COVID-19 Testing in Oregon’s K-12 Schools: Staff Screening program or University of Oregon Saliva Test.

3. Do not remove masks for eating and drinking in public areas of South Lane schools or in other people’s spaces. To further clarify; eating and drinking should occur when alone in a room, or outdoors with 6 feet distance from others. Staff who must remain with children for extended period of time across the day (ex: teachers) are permitted to remove masks briefly to drink water.   

4. Maintain at least 3 feet distance to the extent possible with students, staff, parents and visitors. 

5. To the extent possible, disinfect high-touch surfaces after use, especially in public areas and other people’s spaces.

6. In cases where an employee’s position requires very close proximity with students (ex: life skills programs) and at least 3 feet distance is unable to be maintained when possible, other PPE equipment might be required, such as face shields and gowns. (This requirement will be implemented on a case-by-case basis dependent on the employee’s assignment.)

7. In the event that the district determines additional measures are necessary, a meeting will be held first with you to discuss the situation.

8. In the event that the pandemic circumstances improve, and provided we are allowed by the law and local and state health authorities, some of these measures may be lifted.

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