Masks will be required for anyone inside of a school in Oregon this year, according to a directive Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday.
“The science and data are clear: the delta variant is in our communities, and it is more contagious,” Brown said in a statement.
“My priority is to ensure our kids are able to safely return to full-time in-person learning this fall, five days per week and with minimal disruptions. With many children still ineligible to be vaccinated, masks are an effective way to help keep our kids safe in the classroom, the learning environment we know serves them best.”
Earlier this week, state health officials announced they are recommending that people — vaccinated or not — wear a mask in public indoor settings. The changes in Oregon guidance bring the state in line with the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Previously, the decision to require masks was in the hands of local school districts. Many were still deliberating, with one district, Lake Oswego, moving towards requiring masks for elementary students, who are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Other districts had followed the Oregon Department of Education’s lead, by “strongly advising” masks, but not requiring them. In some parts of Oregon, school leaders expressed surprise at the governor’s announcement, and voiced their interest in making school health decisions at the district, rather than the state level.
For Umatilla School District superintendent Heidi Sipe, Thursday’s statement reminded her of a similar moment around this time last year.
“It’s almost the one year anniversary of the last major change that came right after we had registered all of our families for the various options we were set to provide last fall, only to learn that we could only offer online,” Sipe said.
Sipe runs one of nearly a dozen small school districts in rural Umatilla County, where rates of COVID-19 infection have been outpacing the state average. The latest local data is sobering: 12% of COVID tests are turning up positive, while less than 35% of people are vaccinated. She said the district has been affected by COVID-19 and lost community members to the virus, including a student.
Umatilla’s fall plan included safety measures like cohorts for masked and unmasked students and continued sanitizing in school. As the leader of a school system in a small community, Sipe said she has to acknowledge local reality, including interest in local decision-making.
“We do all understand the severity and gravity of the situation, but we’re also a year and a half into it, and we’re trying to understand how we live within the pandemic, because we have to try to figure out a way to support one another ... and people are just really tired,” Sipe said.
Wednesday evening, Sipe shared a video and presentation about health and safety plans for the year, including a mask-optional policy. The page with the video features an illustration. Some people in the illustration wore masks, others did not.
“Be kind and gracious as people make the best choice about masks for themselves, and their family,” read text under the illustration, asking community members to show respect for each other.
Thursday afternoon, there was an update that the mask-optional policy would resume when the state mandate is over, with a link to Brown’s statement.
“It just feels like, just about every time we make a decision, it changes on us,” Sipe said. “But that’s life in a pandemic, so here we go.”
She’s concerned about how this statewide policy will go over in the districts with different plans for masks.
“Our community I believe will handle this responsibly and respectfully, and I hope that all communities will,” Sipe said, “but I know that there are some that will really have a huge challenge in enforcing this mandate.”
In central Oregon, Crook County School District superintendent Sara Johnson noted that her district has been operating summer programs without students wearing masks, and haven’t had outbreaks.
“I’m determined to retain local control and decision-making that’s in the best interest of our community and Crook County School District,” Johnson said in a statement.
In a statement from the Oregon Department of Education, officials say they are working to create a rule requiring face coverings in all indoor school settings — both public and private — for all individuals 2 and older. This includes students, staff, contractors, volunteers and visitors.
Officials say the rule will take effect upon adoption, but the exact date is unclear. Summer school and students and staff in other summer programs will also be required to wear face coverings when the rule is instituted.
The rule will include provisions for eating, drinking, playing a musical instrument that requires using the mouth and certain sports — including swimming, gymnastics and wrestling.
Likewise, in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee said on Wednesday that the state will continue to require that all students and employees of K-12 schools wear masks when instruction resumes for the upcoming school year, and noted that is a legal requirement not up to the local jurisdictions.
Sara Cline of the Associated Press contributed to this report. Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.