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Two Washington school districts defy governor, vote to make masks optional. Now they face retaliation from state government.

 School board members in Kettle Falls, Washington, voted Monday night to lift the masking requirements after Inslee announced plans to begin easing some mask mandates. The school district in Richland voted 3-2 Tuesday night to make masks optional as well.

In an announcement on Facebook, the Richland School District said schools would be "in an emergency closure" on Feb. 16 so school administrators could "plan a path forward."

"We ask for your patience as the district works to ensure our schools can continue to serve all students," the school district said.

In response to the vote in Kettle Falls, the state government warned that schools that violate the mask mandates could lose state funding, KREM-TV reported. The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction notified Kettle Falls School District that failure to comply with the mandate could result in penalties.

"If KFSD does not take action to be in compliance with the mandate, I am prepared to take further steps as defined in the rules to withhold, and eventually reduce, state funding," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a letter to the district."You are aware that Stevens County has had over 8,000 COVID cases, 500+ hospitalizations, and tragically 120+ deaths since the start of the pandemic. Stevens County remains the county with the lowest community vaccination rate in the state of Washington. I am confident that without masking in schools and in our communities, especially before vaccines were widely available, the loss of life in your county would have been much worse." the letter continued.

A spokesperson from the state superintendent's office said school districts that willfully violate the mandate will get an official notice. If they do not come into compliance within 20 days, the state will withhold a monthly payment and then will reduce funding until the schools are brought into compliance.

“School board actions do not supersede state laws, which are being applied here using the latest science and best public health practices," Inslee press secretary Mike Faulk added in a statement to KREM.

"The science tells us masks work. They are an easy way for people to keep each other safe. Throughout the pandemic they have helped reduce infection in congregate settings where people have lower vaccination rates, including schools,” Faulk said.

Some of the school board members in Kettle Falls said they would have preferred to wait for the governor to lift the mask mandates, rather than risk losing state funding.

“I am all for de-masking our kids, I do have concern with the liabilities we would take on,” board member Chip Johnson said.

“It’s simply a matter of days or a couple of weeks before our state lifts the mandate,” Kettle Falls school board Chairman Matt Langrehr added. According to KREM, both men abstained from Monday night's vote while three other board members agreed to make masks optional.

Board member Brett McKern, who voted to end the mask mandate, said he was not confident Inslee's administration would follow through on promises to lift the statewide mask mandate.

“I wish I felt the same, that I was confident in change coming soon but I have heard that for two years,”he said.

Inslee said last week the state's outdoor masking rule will end on Feb. 18, but he did not say when the indoor mask mandate would end, only that "the day is coming" when COVID-19 restrictions would end as cases and hospitalizations continue to drop.

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