Districts around Oregon are spending the next month sharing back-to-school plans. Though there are still some state rules districts have to follow, many choices around COVID-19 protocols are up to local districts, including the contentious issue of whether to require face coverings inside school buildings.
The state “strongly advises” mask-wearing for anyone unvaccinated. That includes all students under 12, as they are not eligible for the vaccine yet. No matter what the school district policies are, masks must be worn on school buses, due to a federal requirement.
Oregon’s rule differs from neighboring Washington and California, where masks are required indoors for everyone in K-12 settings when students are present. However, Oregon’s guidance aligns more with new guidance out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday, which recommends masks for anyone indoors, vaccinated or unvaccinated.
And at the local level, districts are figuring out what to do this fall. Some are following the Oregon Department of Education’s recommendation, including West Linn-Wilsonville and Springfield Public Schools, by “recommending” or “strongly advising” students to wear face coverings. But the districts aren’t requiring them.
At least one district, Lake Oswego, will require face coverings for students under 12 while inside school buildings. That’s part of the latest iteration of the district’s health and safety plan, which will be presented to the board for approval on August 2.
“Decision making in LOSD is centered on protecting the health and safety of our community and ensuring students’ successful full-time, in-person instruction,” said LOSD superintendent Jennifer Schiele in a message to families.
In a survey earlier this month asking families to respond to the district’s draft plan, the district reported, “wanting masks required for unvaccinated” as a theme throughout the over 2000 responses. The district reported relatively high vaccination rates for school-aged children in Lake Oswego. As of July 9, the district said the vaccination rate was 92.5% for residents 12-18 in the 97034 zip code and 67.3% for residents 12-18 in the 97035 zip code.
The district is asking the school community to respond to another survey on the plan by Thursday morning.
In the North Clackamas School District, survey results collected last week from parents indicated a split in support for face coverings inside buildings, with 45% supporting guidance for staff and students to wear face coverings inside when students are present, 45% not supporting that, and 10% undecided. A staff survey yielded a similar split.
As of now, the district’s draft plan strongly advises, but will not require masks inside school buildings. The plan states the district will also foster “a culture of respect for each person’s health and safety.”
Nearby Oregon City’s district recommendations mirror the state’s language too. But the document included in the school board agenda for a meeting Monday, July 26, also includes a statement from the Clackamas County Public Health Division, dated 7/16, warning that spread of the delta variant among unvaccinated children could sent students back to learning on laptops at home.
“Still, the variant spreads quickly where vaccinations are low, particularly concerning in situations with large numbers of unvaccinated children, such as schools,” according to the statement. “Please be aware that without masking, this disease spread will lead to significant interrupted learning in schools with frequent quarantine needs of children (i.e. return to remote learning).”
Scientists have warned that it’s not yet clear how the delta variant affects COVID-19 transmission or the severity of illness in children.
Other districts, including Hillsboro, Salem-Keizer, Beaverton, and Bend-La Pine, will share information on mask-wearing at board meetings in early August. Salem-Keizer will hold virtual sessions next week to hear from families before announcing recommendations.
Portland Public Schools officials said they will share guidance and protocols on masks with families “soon,” without further specifics. A recent petition created by the Portland Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators and MxM Bloc demands that the district require face coverings for students, staff, and visitors while indoors.
Officials at the Eugene 4j district said they’ll share plans for protocols later this summer. “We are monitoring the public health situation and carefully considering health and safety protocols to best serve and support our students, staff and community,” said the district’s Kerry Delf in an email to OPB.
Districts must submit their plans for the fall to the Oregon Department of Education by Aug. 23.