redmond school board (copy)

The Redmond School Board during a special meeting Aug. 11, 2021 to discuss the Gov. Kate Brown's mask mandate.

REDMOND — On the advice of its attorney, the Redmond School Board has decided not to challenge the state's coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates in court. 

Gov. Kate Brown in late July announced a mask mandate for everyone in K-12 schools. Monday is the deadline for K-12 school staff and volunteers, executive branch employees and health care workers to get vaccinated against the virus or get approved for a medical or religious exemption. The mandate was announced in August. 

In response, the Redmond School Board vowed to pursue all appropriate actions, including but not limited to legal action and use of the medical and religious exemptions. Earlier this month, the board hired Dan Thenell, a Portland-based attorney, to explore legal options. 

But after an executive session Wednesday night, the board decided against action after hearing advice from Thenell, who is also representing several other groups statewide in similar suits. 

"The courts have not been receptive so far to our arguments," Thenell told The Bulletin on Monday. "I just think there should be a limit on what the government can force people to do in terms of medical treatment."

Shawn Hartfield, board chairwoman, said she was glad the board explored its options. She was concerned the district would lose employees as a result of the vaccine mandate, possibly affecting the ability to keep schools open.

"Looking at any legal path to maintain and keep our schools open and not have to get our kids back online, which was not a successful endeavor for us or successful for our kids, was well worth it," Hartfield said.

According to the school district, 14 employees have not provided proof of vaccination or filed for a religious or medical exemption.

Of the district's 940 employees, 72% are fully vaccinated against the virus and 18% have received a medical or religious exemption.

"I'm happy that we at least have the exception so that we can keep them employed, and I really hope that they will fill them out so we do get the last handful of employees so we don't have any other issues going forward," Hartfield said.

The board unanimously agreed to write to the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education laying out questions about the methods being used to determine when decisions about masks and vaccinations will return to local control.

Thenell grew up in Sisters and graduated from Redmond High School. He is also representing Central Oregon health care workers, police officers and firefighters in lawsuits against the governor filed in county circuit courts throughout the state. 

Earlier this month a judge rejected a lawsuit filed in Jefferson County by 33 Oregon State Police troopers and two police and firefighter associations represented by Thenell. They were requesting a temporary restraining order of the vaccine mandate.

Thenell is also defending health care workers and an Oregon nonprofit, Oregon Healthcare Workers for Medical Freedom, in a similar suit filed in Klamath County Circuit Court. The suit was filed against the governor and the Oregon Health Authority.

In another suit filed against the governor and the health authority in Yamhill County, Thenell is defending firefighters, emergency personnel and health care workers.

The two latter cases were combined in a petition to the Oregon Court of Appeals to halt the vaccine mandate. The court of appeals in September declined to order a temporary halt to the mandate and said the petitioners have "little-to-no likelihood of success on the merits of their judicial review." 

Thenell said there is a theme with all the people that have approached his law practice for representation. 

"These are people who have all decided to serve other people, whether they're a firefighter, whether they're a police officer, a nurse, a respiratory therapist, a medical doctor. They have chosen a path of service to help people. And that should not be forgotten," Thenell said. "People need to think about what kind of government we want and what kind of balancing of protecting the public, but also protecting our own rights. Where's the line? And that's what drew me to accept helping these people is that concept."

Reporter; 541-617-7854, nbales@bendbulletin.com

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