The Oregon Health Authority has adopted permanent rules requiring masks in school settings. The rule adopted Jan. 28 replaces a temporary one that was set to expire the same day.
Oregon health and education officials have required masks all school year as one mitigation strategy aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, so that students can stay in school full time.
And while recent policies around contact tracing and COVID-19 exposures have changed, masks will remain required in school settings until the rules are repealed.
As for when that might be, Oregon education officials say it depends on the course of COVID-19.
“The virus sets the timeline,” wrote the Oregon Department of Education’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners resilience manager Kati Moseley in a message to superintendents and school leaders Friday.
“OHA can rescind the masking requirements if it believes the rule or parts of the rule are no longer necessary to control COVID-19,” wrote OHA officials in response to concerns about what might trigger the repeal of the rules
OHA officials said that COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, transmission data, vaccination rates, and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will all play a role in the decision-making when it comes to mask requirements.
The CDC still recommends “universal indoor masking” for everyone in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
According to Burbio, a national data aggregator, 60.8% of the 500 largest districts in the country were mandating masks as of Feb.1. Another 4.2% have a “partial” mask mandate.
Oregon’s newly permanent rules come as a nationwide discussion continues around masking for children. School districts in nearby states are dealing with a backlash to mask requirements. In Washington, the Educational Service District serving several schools in Clark County sent families and community members a letter Friday in response to an effort to vote against school levies as a method to reverse state mandates.
“This tactic is ill-informed and divisive for our schools and our students,” wrote ESD 112 officials in the letter. “It is unfair to punish local kids, many of whom rely on schools to meet their basic needs, in order to make a political statement about masks and COVID-related restrictions… local schools do not have a choice in implementing COVID-related guidance and mandates.”
In Oregon, OHA officials heard from a number of people late last month speaking out against the masking requirements in schools, with many asking that the decision be placed in the hands of local school districts.
“COVID-19 does not recognize borders and Oregonians do travel between counties,” wrote OHA officials in response to the calls for local control. “Community spread of COVID-19 remains high in Oregon.”
Others raised concerns about the effectiveness of masks in general, and the impact of masks on a student’s ability to learn how to read, or develop other skills. OHA responded by sharing a link from healthychildren.org, a website from the American Academy of Pediatrics, that says there is “no known evidence” that masks interfere with speech and language development.
Another parent pointed out that masking can pose problems for some students with disabilities for whom wearing a mask might be difficult. The Oregon Department of Education has stated that students should be accommodated if there are difficulties with a mask.
“Schools/districts should not deny in-person instruction for students with physician’s orders to not wear face coverings due to existing medical conditions or other health related concerns,” according to the guidance.
But during the OHA hearings, one parent claimed that her request for an “unmasked education” for her daughter was denied.
“The fact that her IEP [individualized education plan] is for speech delay, they hung up on me and ended the meeting with a hard ‘no’,” said Lee Ann Thorson, who didn’t identify the school her child attends.
At least one school district has decided to ignore the state’s masking requirement — the Alsea School District in Benton County. As a result, some of the district’s federal funding is in jeopardy.
In a letter addressed to Alsea’s school board chair Ron Koetz and superintendent Marc Thielman, who is running for governor, ODE director Colt Gill wrote that getting federal COVID-19 relief funds “requires school districts to comply with all state laws and regulations.”
Thielman, who also testified to OHA, responded to ODE.
In a letter dated Jan. 31, Thielman disputed the effectiveness of cloth or paper masks, the comfort of N95 and KN95 masks, and said masks will continue to be optional in his district. He asked for a response from state officials within eight days. He said there is a “profound erosion” of community confidence and trust in state officials “to give clear, truthful, science-based guidance to the public in real-time for the ‘preservation of general health, safety, and welfare’ during a Global Pandemic.”
ODE officials say one other district bucked state masking rules. The Adrian School District in eastern Oregon was found out of compliance with face covering rules, according to ODE, but “has since come back into compliance.”
The Oregon Health Authority also filed permanent rules requiring masks in health care settings. OHA will likely file permanent rules requiring masks indoors in coming days, as the temporary rule is set to expire on Feb. 8.