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Regional Interests

Redmond school board rejects recommendation to fire teacher refusing to wear mask

Facing termination for not wearing a mask, Terrebonne Community School teacher Tori Caudell asked that her termination hearing to the board not be done privately, in executive session, but publicly, during the board’s September 22 board meeting.

Redmond board members said they were told this was the first time an Oregon school board faced a decision like this, to fire a teacher based on a mandate from Gov. Kate Brown.

Board members listened to both Caudell and Superintendent Charan Cline as Cline laid out the reasons for recommending the board terminate the elementary school teacher. In turn, Caudell laid out her reasons for defying the mask mandate.

She cited Oregon law prohibiting restraints on children. She also pointed to Occupational Health and Safety Administration rules, though the agency’s recent clarifications of its acceptable mask exemptions don’t appear to support Caudell’s objections. The teacher also said wearing a mask made her lightheaded and foggy, and that it was child abuse to force children to wear them.

“I feel like I’m doing something wrong every time I put a mask on my face,” Caudell 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 is okay to be silenced.”

Caudell, who’s taught for 23 years, said she wore a mask last school year but it made her anxious and angry. Speaking loudly through the mask hurt her throat, she said, and dried out her skin.

Superintendent Charan Cline laid out the timeline of events that led to Caudell’s termination. Caudell has refused to wear a mask since she returned for this school year.

She’s been on paid leave since September 1.

Cline said the district’s human resources office offered alternatives to Caudell and explained how to apply for a medical exemption. Cline said he passed along a job that would provide a “partial accommodation” where she wouldn’t have to wear a mask full-time. Caudell disputed that, saying she was not presented with alternatives or any options.

Cline said the mask mandate is one of the many federal, state and local rules schools have to follow.

“We can not pick and choose which laws to follow based on our individual, political, or religious opinions, nor can we allow our staff to do so, nor can we allow our staff to simply disregard a law if they believe it’s unconstitutional or otherwise illegal,” Cline said.

He also warned of the broader ramifications of allowing Caudell’s insubordination.

“Although the mask rule is the topic of the night, the board should consider the precedent it would set if it does not respond to Ms. Caudell’s refusal to follow the law,” Cline warned.

The Redmond school board has previously debated Brown’s mask mandate, passing a resolution last month seeking local control for both the mask and vaccine mandates. After the resolution passed, the district reiterated that masks would still be required until the mandate is rescinded.

The hearing took place over 40 minutes, with both Caudell and Cline speaking for 15 minutes each before five-minute responses from each of them.

During her five minutes, Caudell had two colleagues share their support, speaking to her classroom experience.

“Tori took a stance for medical freedom on behalf of the majority in our community who feel the exact same way, and unfortunately is now facing possible termination,” said Shelly Abner. “She’s an amazing teacher who demonstrates strong student learning and growth year after year.”

After some discussion and failed support to uphold the termination, the board voted 3-2 to reject Cline’s recommendation to terminate Caudell. Board members who voted yes said the district should try to find alternatives.

Now that the board has rejected the termination, district officials will have to work with Caudell to figure out how to move forward and make a decision about her employment.

One board member who voted no, Liz Goodrich, expressed concern that the board’s decision might open the door to more Redmond teachers disregarding state rules.

In her testimony to the board, Caudell saw the board’s decision as a chance to exert local control, especially as a deadline for a statewide vaccine mandate looms.

“You have the opportunity here to give teachers and families a choice to wear masks or not, when it comes to the vaccination mandate, you’ll be facing the same scenario over dozens of teachers,” Caudell said.

“You can choose to keep our community together and save our jobs so we can go on with what is really important — educating our kids and raising them to be productive members of society.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting