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Pe Ell Student Protest Against State Mask Mandate Continues; District Declares Protest a Political Rally

By Emily Fitzgerald / emily@chronline.com

Many of the Pe Ell students who walked out on Tuesday to protest the state’s face mask mandate did not return to their classes on Wednesday or Thursday, instead standing peacefully in front of the school holding signs and banners with their message: “No Mask.”

The student protesters were even joined by two teachers and were supported by community members throughout the week donating food or honking their horns as they drove by the school.

But Friday morning, with the students planning another day of protest — this time with congressional candidate Heidi St. John along with Republican District 19 Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen — the Pe Ell School District sent out a message to the protesters asking them to move off campus.

Pe Ell student Owen Little said he took an issue with the school’s designation of Friday’s protest as a “political rally.”

“Just because they (St. John and Walsh) are here as well and speaking to it doesn’t make it all of a sudden a political issue,” he said. “We’re still here for the same reason, for the same purpose, and we would’ve done it if they were here or not.”

The protesters chose to stay in front of the school.

“They’re going to get in contact with their lawyers, but we’re still here and we’re going to keep going,” said student Jesse Justice.

Students said they messaged St. John asking her to come speak “and she was more than happy to come out,” said Justice.

“We want today to be the biggest and make it more of an impact … try and get more recognition and keep making changes,” said student Taylor Briggs.

The Pe Ell School Board announced Friday morning that it will hold a special meeting on Monday for Pe Ell School District residents — including students — to “provide input” on the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 mandates for schools.

Anyone who wants to speak at the meeting is required to call the district office at 360-291-3823 or email Superintendent Kyle MacDonald at kmacdonald@peell.k12.wa.us with their name and the topic they want to speak on. All names will be added to a list that the board chairman will call at Monday’s meeting.

“Please listen for your name to be called, there will be no particular order, but we will try to ensure all are heard,” said the school board in a written notice.

The meeting will be held in person at the Pe Ell School District office at 519 North Second Street at 6 pm on Feb. 7. Attendees can also access the meeting virtually via Zoom: visit the Pe Ell School District’s Facebook page for details on how to join the call.

While this will give Pe Ell students and community members the opportunity to express their concerns about the mask requirements, the Pe Ell School District doesn’t have control over the state mandate — and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has indicated that he will not presently consider revisions to mask requirements in schools.

“Masks work to limit transmission. We know they work and that’s why these policies are in place,” said Inslee’s office in a statement to The Chronicle. “Cases are only now on the decline and numbers for cases and hospitalizations remain very high. could be at a place in the near future where we’re able to revisit masking requirements, but not right now. We need everyone to help keep their communities safe from this virus.”

Because COVID-19 spreads from person to person primarily through respiratory droplets, masks and other face coverings reduce the chance of an infected person spreading the infection to others, according to the state Department of Health.

Research supports that under most circumstances, mask wearing has no significant adverse health effects for wearers, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But Pe Ell students are not protesting masks because of any negative health effects, or lack thereof: they’re protesting the fact that they haven’t been given a choice whether to wear a face covering or not.

“A lot of our students in there, a lot of them don’t mind and that’s great,” said student Trace Shanklin, referring to his classmates who chose not to participate in the walkout. “We just want options. We’re not saying ‘no more mask,’ we’re just saying we want the choice.”

“School has become all politics,” Justice said. “There’s no teaching left in the school, it’s just ‘you have to wear a mask, do what we say, keep all the doors locked.’ It’s just all based on fear and we’re tired of being held down.”

Justice told St. John and Walsh that he deeply enjoyed school prior to the pandemic, but was considering leaving school to get his GED.

“All these students you see out here are honor roll students, ASB students, who like being in school, do well in school, and we can’t go back in there because it’s just depressing,” he told St. John and Walsh.

Between 50 and 60 people participated in the protests on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, students said. Participants weren’t sure what to expect from Friday’s turnout, since Pe Ell School wasn’t in a session so fewer students would be around, but with the support from St. John and Walsh, about 60 people went to Friday’s demonstration.

“I really want to hear from the students today because this is about you guys,” St. John said to the students. “What we’re going to do today is we’re going to make a statement. The whole world is watching what’s happening here and they think that we’re chickens and a bunch of liberals who want to wear masks for the rest of our lives but it’s not true, is it?” she asked, sparking a chorus of “No!” from the students.

“We want people to know that we’re going to stand for freedom here in Washington and it starts today,” she said.

“It’s really true what Heidi says, people from all over are watching what’s going on here: small-town America doing the right thing,” Walsh said, “I’m just here to say congratulations to all of you. So even if you’re still a teen, you’re starting to do the right things, you’re starting to do the things that adults in our state and our country need to do. You’re standing on principle, you’re standing for what you believe in, and that’s America.”

Friday marked the last day of protesting for Pe Ell students this week, but some indicated they’d be willing to come back out to continue protesting next week.

“We’re hoping other schools join in and we can go up to the Capitol and make a real difference,” Justice said.

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