SALEM, Ore. — School districts across Oregon must create their own mask policies after state health officials announced on Monday that it’s dropping the state mask requirement in indoor public spaces and K-12 schools by March 31.
That means individual districts will make the call on whether to keep or do away with masking in schools. There are passionate people on both sides of the masking issue, and that means a lot of pressure on districts.
Parents put pressure on districts
On Tuesday morning, parents and students protested outside the Sherwood School District office, voicing their frustration that kids still have to wear masks at school.
“The original emergency order was to end today. So that's why we're making the statement today is because it really truly should have ended today,” said parent Stephanie Day.
Another parent, Amanda Thorpe, said she didn’t want to wait until state officials officially ended the mask mandate for public indoor spaces and K-12 schools at the end of March.
Parents who attended the protest said they weren’t against students wearing a mask. They were advocating for a choice.
Oregon Health Authority officials said on March 31, individual school districts will be able to make decisions on whether to require masks.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools superintendent weighs in on OHA announcement
“Very quickly, you hear it's your decision and then you also realize that […] universal masking is one of the layers of protection and a lot of our safety protocols have been built around that as a constant,” said Chrisy Perry, Salem-Keizer Public Schools superintendent.
She said no one wants to have to wear a mask, but there's a lot to consider if masks are removed. Questions she posed included: what will it mean for the risk of illness? What about kids who go home to high-risk family members?
These considerations are on top of an already stressful year.
Perry said people in education are working in a fatigued system this year, dealing with staffing shortages, the vaccine mandate, exceptions to the vaccine mandate and other challenges related to the pandemic and full-time in-person learning. Now educators will have to juggle another change.
“I wondered, why now? Why in March, you know? We're several months away from the school year ending,” said Perry.
“The date is going to be April 1. That really leaves us about 10 weeks of school left. […] I wonder, why couldn’t we have thought of this as a decision point for next school year?”
Department of Education issues letter to superintendents
An Oregon Department of Education letter to superintendents released on Monday said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as state health and education officials "strongly advise" the use of masks in schools. It further said a lack of masks "will likely result in more days out of school for unvaccinated students and staff, and more classroom and school closures due to staffing constraints."
The letter also pointed out that without universal masking, "schools should anticipate significant increases in workload from contact tracing and notification."
In addition, the letter said masks will continue to be required on public transportation, which includes school buses, until it's lifted by the federal government. The requirement cannot be waived by state or local officials.
What comes next
Perry hopes to give Salem-Keizer Public Schools families more information by early March and has similar plans for the state's largest district, Portland Public Schools, which intends to work with Multnomah County health officials on a plan.
“We are aware of OHA's announcement, but have not made any decisions yet on what this will mean for Portland Public Schools. We expect to review the OHA rule, seek guidance from our public health experts and look forward to collaborating with Multnomah's health department to determine what is best for our local community,” said Jonathan Garcia, PPS chief of staff, in a statement to KGW.
Whatever the plan is, Perry said it’ll have to be one that can easily adjust to conditions related to COVID, possible variants and case spikes down the road.
“How do we make a thoughtful, well-reasoned decision that then we can pivot to or from based on what we see with the illness.”