Teacher faces six days of unpaid suspension for refusing to comply with mask mandate

Katelyn Waltemyer
Jackson Newspapers
Worley stood in front of the board Oct.7 arguing that she should not face an unpaid suspension.

RIPLEY  The Jackson County Board of Education unanimously backed Superintendent Blaine Hess’ decision to issue a six-day unpaid suspension of teacher Colleen Worley for not complying with the mask mandate.  

The board ruled at its Sept. 2 meeting that face coverings would be required starting the following Tuesday, Sept. 7. Worley, a fifth-grade teacher at Gilmore Elementary School, then pursued a medical exemption, which took several days to get approval.  She refused to wear a face covering and was suspended from teaching until she got her exemption. 

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Superintendent Hess has the power to suspend a teacher for up to 30 days without consulting the board first, but all suspension cases must be brought before the board where the members will either approve or deny the action. 

The board's attorney, Howard Seufer, presented Hess' argument to the board after Worley elected to have an open hearing.

"I don't believe these facts, or at least most of them are, in any way disputed between the parties," Seufer said. "The question this evening is a big question for [the board], and that is what should be the consequences if any."

According to Seufer's findings, Worley had worn a face mask last school year when it was required but was seen on multiple occasions without it on or pulled down. 

Gilmore Elementary Principal Jenny Knopp issued a memorandum to Worley's file in April last school year after repeatedly finding her without a mask on inside the school while Gov. Justice's mandate was still in effect. 

During Worley's statement to the board, she equated her mental health concerns of wearing a face mask to having a broken ankle. 

"Mental Illness, anxiety is internal," Worley said. "You can't see the break, the bruising, the swelling, the limping, the hopping, the crawling, but it's all there. Instead of helpful suggestions, I got tattled on, talked about and eventually called to the principal's office for a talking to, which resulted in a reprimanding letter being placed in my file, and no help."

Worley was suspended from Sept. 7 to Sept. 14. Prior to her suspension, she wrote a letter titled "To whom it may concern." 

"This letter serves as official notice that I do not consent to be forced to wear a mask," Seufer read aloud. "I will not fail to take the maximum action permissible under the law against Jackson County Schools, against you personally."

With guidance from the local health department, she returned to the classroom with a face shield. 

She has worn a face shield that rests around her neck since coming back to the classroom. Beyond mental health concerns she said arose from wearing a mask, she explained that some face shields, like the ones with the glasses frame, lead to discomfort due to her skin cancer. 

The Centers for Disease Control posted on April 19 that face shields aren't an adequate substitute for masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19.  

During his closing statement, attorney Seufer argued the school gave ample warning about the mandate, and provided masks and shields for everyone in the schools. 

After the board deliberated on its decision, the public was welcomed back in to witness the board member's votes all voted to uphold Hess' motion. President Jim Frazier said it came down to one factor. 

"We have a policy in place," Frazier said. "You deliberately didn't follow the policy, and we cannot let that happen."

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— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at kwaltemyer@jacksonnewspapers.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.