With Oregon’s mask mandate ending in less than a month, school districts are making plans for how to move forward for the rest of the school year.
The end of the state mandate, March 19, coincides with the weekend before spring break in most school districts. The 19th is on a Saturday, and thousands of students in Oregon won’t be back in classrooms until Monday, March 28.
“[This] allows for a natural transition and the ability to teach new expectations when students return after spring break,” Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill said in a video message posted Thursday.
Gill said school and health officials asked for the indoor mask mandate and school mask mandate to end on the same date. He said district leaders also indicated that the next three weeks gives them enough time to “thoughtfully prepare and plan for this transition.”
Pressure to make masks optional sooner than the end of March has been building for the last few weeks, with protests and school board actions across the state in support of ending school mask requirements. Earlier this week, a group of 11 superintendents representing central Oregon districts sent a letter to state health officials asking for the mandates to lift simultaneously while also expressing concern for further disruptions to learning.
“Being out of sync with the rest of our respective communities... will be a tremendous hardship for our staff and could likely lead to some very challenging working conditions during this transition period,” they wrote.
Oregon is one of several states lifting mask requirements. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is preparing to roll out new mask guidelines, as soon as Friday, as part of a shift in focus toward limiting severe disease, rather than corralling transmission more broadly.
But as school communities in Oregon plan for this change, they don’t yet have all of the information they may need.
Gill said the state will have “practical updates to safety protocols for quarantine, contact tracing, and testing” early next week, including ways to provide support for individuals at higher risk of COVID-19.
The Oregon Department of Education has previously shared information indicating what school might look like when masks go away: test-to-stay may no longer be available, any contact within 6 feet for 15 minutes of someone with COVID-19 could be considered an exposure, and schools should anticipate an “increased workload in contact tracing and notification.”
The state still recommends masks for anyone who is unvaccinated, immunocompromised, with underlying health conditions, age 65 or older, “or anyone who lives with someone in one of these categories,” Gill said.
The lifting of one COVID-19 protocol does not mean an end to others. School districts still encourage vaccines for students, with staff required to be vaccinated. Schools are also expected to employ other safety protocols like ventilation and distancing, though some say those rules aren’t always enforced.
Several districts have announced plans to make masks optional as soon as the statewide mask mandate ends, including Hillsboro and Bend-La Pine. Some are surveying families and communities to get their feedback, including Umatilla, Central and Tigard-Tualatin.
Central’s survey has so far received over 800 responses, though there may be duplicates. Staff at the district, which is west of Salem, say the results have been overwhelmingly in favor of a mask-optional policy. Both staff and community members expressed concerns about masks impeding teaching and learning, while some staff worried about having to use sick time for quarantines.
District officials are concerned about liability insurance, as well as other possible changes that might come with new state guidance.
”We want to ensure a culture and climate where all students and staff feel welcome, safe, and are ready to learn,” said Central Superintendent Jennifer Kubista. “We hope the state will reconsider allowing Test to Stay if masks are optional, and/or take a close look at quarantines for close contacts.”
Oregon’s three largest school districts — Portland, Beaverton, and Salem-Keizer — have not yet announced plans to continue with the mask mandate or make them optional.
To make masks optional, Portland officials would likely need to come to an agreement with the Portland Association of Teachers union, due to a line in the PPS-PAT contract agreement that requires all students to wear masks.
Beaverton schools officials say they have not made a decision on masking and do not have a timeline.
Salem-Keizer superintendent Christy Perry did not give a timeline either.
“Between now and spring break, we will be speaking with our local health experts to examine the best course of action and get feedback on a proposal,” Perry said in an email to OPB.
“We must formulate a plan that carefully considers all COVID protocols in our system, our most vulnerable students, and staff, and how we transition to this next phase in the pandemic.”