Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has announced the state will join Washington and California in lifting the mask mandate for indoor spaces, including schools, on March 12. The original mask mandate expiration was March 31, and was then moved up to March 19. Now individual school districts are left to decide how their masking policies will change. We talk with Umatilla School District Superintendents Heidi Sipe and Tigard-Tualatin District Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. Oregon’s mask mandate for K-12 schools, and for indoor public spaces more broadly, is about to go away as of Saturday, March 12th. A week and a half from now, it’ll be up to districts to chart their own course. It’s not clear at this point that any district is going to require masks for all students and staff. We wanted to hear how districts are getting ready for the next phase, so we have called up two superintendents we’ve talked to at other points during the pandemic: Heidi Sipe is the Superintendent of the Umatilla School District, and Sue Rieke-Smith is in charge of Tigard-Tualatin Schools. Welcome back to you both.
Heidi Sipe / Sue Rieke-Smith: Thank you.
Miller: Susan Smith, what is it going to be like at Tigard-Tualatin Schools when you come back from spring break?
Sue Rieke-Smith: Well, actually before spring break, our current plan is to launch optional masks beginning the week of March 14, which falls directly after March 12 ‒ sending that back to us in terms of local control.
Miller: How did you make that decision to go to ‘mask, optional?’
Rieke-Smith: Well, Dave, you take a look at a number of factors. I think the first pieces that you take a look at [are] what are the current conditions? Omicron has opened a door for us that is entirely different than when we were dealing with Delta and all the previous variants ‒ high transmissibility ‒ and for those who are vaccinated or for our children, they tended to tolerate it better, not requiring hospitalizations. Certainly following the spike, at least in Washington County, we saw a dramatic drop off and we are almost, in Washington County, to pre-Omicron levels. We have a high-level of vaccination in our district – 74% of our students. We still have a need for our elementary families to consider vaccination, but overall a high degree of vaccination with students and a high vaccination rate for our staff. We’re nearly 98 … almost 99% of our staff are vaccinated. So all of those things together, plus we pushed out a survey and asked families to not argue in favor of masking or not masking because this is really a COVID mitigation plan that districts have to develop. But what supports do you need in terms of information, in terms of vaccination clinics, and anything else that you can think of? We’ve had nearly 3,000 respond to that and that has provided a good deal of information to us as we’re putting this plan together.
Dave Miller: Heidi Sipe, what about in Umatilla School District Schools? How did you think about approaching the new reality where you get to make your own rules regarding masks?
Heidi Sipe: Well, we started off by dusting off our mask-optional plan from July, because as you may recall, we were set to start the year mask-optional until that option was not possible because of the state requirements.
Miller: I did not recall that … lost in the mists of COVID time.
Sipe: I believe that we released it, and the very next day the requirement to have all students masked was released. So, it was the most poorly timed release I think we’ve ever done. We started with that, and in that plan it required some zoning to make sure that students who were unmasked didn’t have to quarantine, or students who are masked didn’t have to quarantine, based off of decisions for students who are unmasked. It really has been involved steps. Fortunately, because some of the contact tracing changes are in place now, we don’t have to do that zoning plan at all. That’s really exciting. Just like Dr. Sue talked about, we have done very similar steps. We’ve surveyed our parents throughout, so we again shared our original plan from summer and said, what things would you like to be considered now? Most of our parents said, ‘we really don’t understand the zoning thing.’ Now, we’ve all gone through this, we really feel like…
Miller: Could you remind us, what is zoning?
Sipe: What we were looking at is that there would be zones in the classroom so that masked students would be sitting together and unmasked students would be sitting together, and they would be spaced six feet apart because under the guidelines previously, if a student was in a classroom that allowed students to be unmasked, if one student came down with COVID, they would all have to be quarantined unless there was this zone concept. That was really challenging for us to manage because we were hearing a lot from our parents over the summer that they didn’t have plans in place for childcare and other things. So, if they were choosing to send their kid to school in a mask and they were doing everything they could as a family to prevent that quarantine, but another family who completely had an informed decision to unmask and that was fine and supported but their decision could impact that other family. We were trying to figure out how could we support both families’ decisions and needs, and that’s where that zoning came from.
Fortunately though, it’s now a thing of the past. It’s one of our many iterations throughout COVID, where we’ve been able to look at every factor, make a plan with a lot of public input and then just rethink it. Our latest plan just does away with that and moves forward with the masking requirement no longer being required, and really focusing on supporting people in making the best decisions. We do have a survey out, or that will be released next week, asking parents if you would like us to enforce masking for your elementary age students. We need to know that so teachers know to ask those students to wear masks so that families who need that for their family can be supported in that during the school day when students are unsupervised from their parents. We want to make sure we’re respecting those parents’ choices. We’re also asking which families who want to mask may need some KN-95 masks that we have available to support them as well. So, we’re just figuring out those details.
Miller: Sue Rieki-Smith, part of what we heard from Heidi Sipe in Umatilla gets to some recent changes, just this morning, from the Oregon Department of Education ‒ new protocols in terms of quarantine and testing. Can you describe it, just in simple terms, because there are pages and pages that I saw in an email? But in basic terms, what has changed?
Rieki-Smith: Well, a number of things have changed for us and, and actually, so I can just pull off of what will be one of the slides in my presentation on Monday. But the long and the short of it is that yes, we have local control. But again, it’s to COVID mitigation of which masking is a piece of that. So the pieces that we had in place such as ‘test to stay,’ no longer hold true. That has gone away, but you can still use BinaxNOW tests at the school level for diagnostic purposes if you believe a child may be showing symptoms. Quarantining of those who are exposed to an individual who is positive, and contact tracing is now off the boards. It’s because the CDC and its guidance basically found ‒ and again, this has to do with Omicron ‒ and so I want to be really specific here, Dave, that we’re talking about Omicron and its variants. We’re not talking about something else that we haven’t seen before or what we’ve seen previously. Its transmissibility was such that contact tracing and quarantining were not effective, and so that is no longer required.
Miller: So…let me make sure I understand that piece. So, the mask mandate is going away and we can assume that’s going to mean that many fewer people, students and staff all across Oregon, are going to be wearing masks starting in a week and a half. It’s also then the case now going forward that, if somebody is exposed, they do not have to quarantine. They can just go right back to class?
Rieki-Smith: That is correct, and it is our obligation and we take that very seriously, as I know that Heidi Sipe does with her team in in Umatilla, to notify parents if there’s been a possible exposure either in the classroom or in multiple classrooms that if it’s at the middle and the secondary levels. But we are no longer required to quarantine those who have been exposed but are not showing symptoms. We are required, or we will be in Tigard-Tualatin, requiring students who are positive or staff who are found to be positive to isolate for five days. That is supported by our Board policy that’s in place relative to handling of communicable diseases.
Miller: But that’s your choice at the District level to require that, even for people who are positive, the state is no longer saying you cannot have them come to school?
Rieki-Smith: They are strongly advising that we isolate, and along with the CDC.
Miller: So, it’s a gigantic change that we’re all embarking on together after two plus years of really intense state control over how you could conduct yourselves in schools. Now, this really is a kind of a ‘let it rip, slash, we recommend you do this.’
Rieki-Smith: Correct. And I think it’s well advised because, again, each of our communities … Heidi is in a much different context in Umatilla than we are here in Washington County, and in the rain shadows, as I like to say, of Pdx. So, you need to take that into account. Each of us have various levels of vaccination. Each of us have various needs relative to our families. And so what I appreciate about the state’s move at this point is … I laugh a little bit about your ‘let it rip.’ We’re going to be a little more thoughtful than that.
Miller: But I guess I mean, maybe the phrase is half joking, but what’s behind it is not at all jokey. I mean…
Rieki-Smith: No, it’s not.
Miller: But the fact is you have the ability, if you wanted to. The state is not saying, ‘you cannot let it rip.’
Rieki-Smith: I think we have a responsibility, and this is also part of the work here is in working hand-in-glove with our local county health departments as well. We put the plan together and we vetted it with them, and we vetted against the CDC guidance. Because we take this very seriously ‒ as you well know, I come from a previous healthcare and public health background ‒ this is prime time for us to make sure that we’re getting this right. We’re doing it in partnership with our Public Health Department, and we’re working with our families to make sure that they are fully informed as to what their choice means. That is no different than what I would have done, quite frankly, as a Public Health Nurse: Here’s what the conditions are, here’s what this means for you if you do this, here’s what it means for you if you do something other, and you know it’s up to you to make a decision that’s best for you within certain conditions.
Now I also want to put a caveat out there that we are anchoring into the CDC’s COVID-19 levels within the community and we will have a sliding scale just like we did when last time you and I talked about when to flip a school to online or classroom to online instruction because of infections of both students and staff. It’s going to be the same thing here, relative to mask guidance. We are in a green and yellow, which is the low and medium that CDC has put forth levels, masks optional. When we get too high, we will probably go to universal masking for a short period of time while we get through that stretch.
Miller: Let me go to you about this, because this is an interesting question about going back to masks after saying whether at the state level or the local level you don’t need to wear them. When I asked Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist about this a few weeks ago, he did not seem interested in entertaining the scenarios about what it would take for a return to a mask mandate. Is that something that you’re planning for right now? What it would take to say, in Umatilla schools, ‘sorry folks, we have to go back?’
Rieki-Smith: We actually have something that we’ve been updating weekly called our Informed decision matrix. Every week, we publish how many cases we’ve had by grade level in each school and how many staff cases we’ve had in each school building. When we initially started that, it was because we were planning on having masks optional at the start of the school year and then we just decided to keep that rolling. So parents, each week, can look and decide this is the level of infection in my child’s grade level and then they can make the decision that’s best for their family accordingly. As we move forward, I really find that our parents are very well informed and very savvy. One of the examples of that [we] actually saw in our kids. One of the examples of that was our basketball team, when they were nearing the playoffs, they chose to play in masks in a couple of their recent games because they knew if they had an exposure, they’d have to sit out, and they didn’t want to have to do that. So they willingly masked up on their own because they knew that that would decrease their risk for quarantining when that was required. So, I really think that we’re underestimating the ability of parents to be responsive to needs as they change. If we’ve learned anything over the last two years it’s that this will change on a dime over and over and over again, and I’m excited for us to be moving forward into this area.
I think the thing that I have to do as a leader now is really re-establish the communication and the strategy and the education for families in our community and the way in which we work together to keep our kids safe and keep them learning in school. That means sometimes I may have to say, ‘look everyone, fourth grade is having a lot of infection. I strongly recommend you mask your kids up right now because it can help, and here’s the access to KN-95 masks to do it. If you don’t want to participate, that may be fine. But I’m telling you this would be in your best interest.’ There may be a point where a county then hits that CDC level where we will be recommended to mask and at that point I would work with our board to make those decisions for a final decision. But I think we still probably end on really making sure people are well informed, they have the information they need, the tools that they need, and then still supporting that choice.
Miller: Heidi Sipe and Sue Rieki-Smith, thanks very much for your time today.
Sipe / Rieki-Smith: Thank you.
Miller: Heidi Sipe is a Superintendent of the Umatilla School District, Sue Rieki-Smith is the Superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin Schools.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to email@example.com, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.