Masks are required in Oregon schools until March 31 under a requirement that also requires masks indoors in public places statewide. The Oregon Health Authority announced the upcoming changes to the state’s mask requirements on Monday, pointing to a forecasted decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
After the end of March, the decision to require masks returns to individual businesses and institutions, including schools.
Some districts have announced plans to go mask-optional come April, a decision some school leaders have asked to be in local hands for months.
That includes Sherwood School District, whose school board members expressed concern with the state’s mask mandate back in August.
“Based on previous Board action and the information released today, pending no further county-level mandates from the local public health authority, our district will move forward with an optional mask rule once the current mandate ends on March 31, 2022,” wrote Sherwood Superintendent Heather Cordie in a message to the district community on Monday.
As OHA shared its update on Monday, Cordie and other district leaders were preparing for protests and rallies against masks on Tuesday.
“If the number of students attempting to enter the building becomes unsafe or disruptive to the overall learning environment, and those students continue to refuse to put on masks, we may be forced to move the school to an online format,” Cordie wrote.
Medford, Silver Falls, and Bend-La Pine also indicated a move towards mask-optional schooling. Bend-La Pine cited the district’s operational plan from August, which allows for masks to be “strongly recommended” rather than required if a vaccine is available for 5-12 year-olds and the state’s order is rescinded.
Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill has indicated that there are risks involved with making masks optional. Gill says schools will no longer be able to continue test-to-stay efforts and going without masks will affect quarantine rules. Even after March 31, ODE and the Oregon Health Authority will continue to “strongly advise” face coverings in schools.
Other districts, including the three largest in Oregon, say they need to consult with local public health officials before moving forward with a decision.
“The district will determine how to navigate a local decision-making process and will keep families and students updated in the coming days,” said Salem-Keizer Public Schools officials in a tweet. Portland Public Schools and the Beaverton School District made similar statements in response to Monday’s announcement.
Oregon colleges and universities are starting to take steps in response to OHA’s mask announcement as well.
Lake Oswego School District and Tigard-Tualatin have said they will seek information and feedback from families and staff in making a decision about masking in schools once the statewide rule ends.
The statewide unions representing teachers and school employees asked for all districts to do similar outreach over the next seven weeks.
“While we welcome the general feeling of hope behind this, we have a lot of concerns about this creating even more confusion just as we’re trying to finish a very stressful year,” Oregon School Employees Association President Lia Gourley said.
“Right now, a lot of exhausted classified school staff feel like the rules keep changing. We don’t feel like our voices are always heard. With this change, it’s going to be more important than ever that, at the local level, schools listen to what we have to say.”
The state’s higher education institutions are starting to look at adjusting mask policies, as well. Oregon State University officials shared a message with the school community on Tuesday that they’re evaluating the use of masks within classrooms and elsewhere.