An unmasked man stands up in a crowd on anti-mandate signs
An unmasked man reacts in objection during a Portland Public Schools board meeting to discuss a proposed vaccine mandate for students Tuesday. Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Despite being interrupted by unmasked protesters, members of the Portland Public Schools (PPS) board moved forward with developing a possible vaccine mandate for PPS students 12 and older during their Tuesday night board meeting. The board will vote on a specific mandate in mid-November.

The meeting was temporarily suspended early in the evening when members of the public protesting the possible vaccine mandate refused to wear masks inside the meeting room. After repeated reminders of Oregon’s indoor mask mandate, PPS board Chair Michelle DePass suspended the in-person meeting and reconvened the meeting virtually.

According to the Oregonian, several of the anti-mask and anti-mandate protesters said they travelled from Vancouver, Washington, and other cities in Oregon to protest the board’s discussion.

After moving to a virtual meeting, PPS staff presented board members with four options: require vaccinations for all students 12 and older who are participating in extracurricular activities shown to be at high risk for transmission, require vaccinations for all students 12 and older, require vaccinations for students 16 and older, or refuse to require vaccinations for any students.

The board chose to pursue either creating a mandate for students 12 and older or skipping a vaccine requirement altogether. Board members will make their final decision in a November 16 vote.

The seven board members wrestled with two main concepts during their discussion: individual rights and public health equity.

“We hear a lot—and you all heard it very directly earlier—about rights and individual rights,” said board member Andrew Scott. “I think it’s really important that we also focus on community rights.”

Scott, who favors a vaccine mandate for students 12 and older, argued that an individual’s right to not get vaccinated infringes on the school community’s right to a safe public health setting. Recent studies have shown that the COVID vaccine lowers a vaccinated person’s risk of transmitting the virus to their peers.

Scott noted that Oregon has a precedent of prioritizing public health in school because the state already requires vaccinations for Polio, chickenpox, measles, and more in order for students to enroll in public school.

Board member Gary Hollands is not supportive of a vaccine mandate, and said he would rather recommend vaccinations.

“Director Scott being okay with government mandated things is coming from a different lens,” Hollands said. “That lens is not rooted in historical misgivings that have plagued minority communities.”

Hollands, who is Black, said he has heard from PPS parents who do not trust public health officials because of the medical racism people of color have experienced at the hands of government-run public health programs. Hollands also noted the district’s responsibility to educate students who don’t get vaccinated and questioned whether PPS has the resources to offer those students online courses. PPS is currently facing a staff shortage and the majority of the district’s virtual classes have waiting lists.

Board Chair DePass, who is also Black, recognizes the fear some people of color have of public health systems and noted that she grew up surrounded by people “very skeptical of the medical establishment.” However, DePass is supportive of the vaccine mandate with minimal exemptions because of the increasing severity of each new COVID variant.

“I feel morally obligated to put this in place to protect not just my kids, but our kids, the community’s kids,” DePass said.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, PPS school board members received input from regional and national health experts, PPS parents, PPS students, and over 300 written public comments. Of those comments, 62 percent were supportive of a vaccine mandate.

Notably, the arguments the board heard against the vaccine mandate came almost exclusively from parents and adults, while feedback from PPS students overwhelmingly supported the mandate.

Four of the six students in the district’s student listening session last week supported the mandate, and the board’s student representative Jackson Weinberg said a majority of students who participated in peer discussions supported vaccinations for students. Over 200 Grant High School students walked out of class Tuesday to show support for the proposed mandate.

Board member Eilidh Lowery cited her discomfort being in a room with so many unmasked and possibly unvaccinated people earlier in the evening, likening it to some of the student feedback the board has heard since the return of in-person teaching. Lowery referenced testimony from Grant High School student Danny Cage, who has repeatedly submitted comments to the board about how the halls of Grant are “packed like sardines” with inconsistent mask-wearing. Grant was built to accommodate 1,700 students, but currently has over 2,000 students enrolled.

Support The Portland Mercury

Given the student feedback, Lowery said she supports a vaccine mandate with limited exemptions with the intention to reduce student quarantine periods and reduce transmission in PPS schools overall.

“My goal for students in PPS is to have a full five days of school,” Lowery said. “If my goal is to keep kids in school as much as possible, vaccinating kids is a way to do that to reduce the quarantine burden. It also reduces the spread of infection which keeps kids in school longer.”

The board needs four votes to pass a vaccine mandate. DePass, Scott, Lowrey, and board member Amy Kohnstamm have already indicated they intend to vote yes. The district will spend the next two weeks detailing how vaccines and vaccine information would be distributed to students. The board is scheduled to vote on the vaccine mandate on November 16.