Oregon students K-12 will be required to wear face coverings when they return to school.
The Oregon Department of Education released Wednesday the first major update to its “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” fall guidance. Additions cover important issues such as attendance, instructional hours and safety protocols, but the face covering rules will have the biggest emotional impact on school staff, students and families.
ODE had previously recommended masks but said they could not be required of students.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday a range of more restrictive measures, including masks for children, aimed at curbing Oregon’s growing COVID-19 case numbers since the state started to reopen.
“We ventured out on the ice together, and that ice has begun to crack,” she said during a news conference.
Children ages 5 and older will be required to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces and outdoors when physical distancing isn’t possible, starting July 24.
Wearing face coverings can reduce COVID-19’s spread, according to doctors and scientists.
As of Monday, 28 states have public mask mandates, and polls consistently show the public favors wearing masks for the safety of others.
ODE said in a news release that it updated its requirements “in response to mounting evidence that face coverings are effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.”
During the news conference, Oregon State Health Officer Dean Sidelinger said there is evidence children 10 and older can spread the disease as easily as adults. He added that younger children are less likely to show symptoms while still spreading it to more vulnerable family members.
Schools must ensure that students have access to face coverings, according to the guidance. ODE will distribute to education service districts and school districts 5 million KN95 face masks donated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The new mask requirement removes a key hurdle to Oregon schools’ plans to reopen this fall.
Protecting the health of vulnerable students and teachers is one of three key pandemic priorities listed by the Oregon Education Association, the teachers union. Teachers around Oregon and the nation have asked for students to be required wear masks, as many teachers are in the coronavirus high-risk category. On Wednesday, Indiana required masks for students in third grade and up.
But masks have also become politicized, with some passionately decrying them as a limit on civil liberties or raising unsupported medical concerns. Some Oregon school leaders expect a small but vocal opposition to masks.
Students cannot be disciplined or discriminated against “for an inability to safely wear a face covering during the school day.” Students who can’t or won’t wear a mask must still be provided access to instruction. Comprehensive distance learning will be an option for most students, but Americans With Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act protections must be considered.
Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe said she expects the mask requirement to be divisive for some parents but the district will offer distance learning and online schooling options for parents who don’t want their children to wear masks. Sipe is on the governor’s task force for reopening schools.
The Umatilla School District has already purchased face buffs for students and staff, Sipe said. The cloth one-piece wraps sit around the neck, and even small children can easily pull them up over the nose and mouth. They are washable and cost between $3 and $10 each.
Before masks were required, the Grants Pass School District was already looking at spending roughly $25,000 on face coverings and other personal protective equipment for staff and students, according to Sherry Ely, director of the Business and Finance Department. Teachers have asked for face coverings with clear panels so students can see their expressions, she said.
Masks are not the only issue districts are wrestling with as they work on operational blueprints that must be presented to their school boards and the public by Aug. 15.
ODE plans at least one more major guidance update, which will include more detailed reporting rules for attendance.
Brown said ODE and her office are working with health agencies to create metrics to determine when schools can open to in-person learning.
Wednesday’s update recommends cohorts be limited to 24-36 people. Students cannot be part of any single cohort or part of multiple cohorts that exceed a total of 100 people within the educational week.
North Powder School District Superintendent Lance Dixon said before the release that he would be looking for the cohort rules. The district’s plan would allow in-person learning for all students with an average class size of 22, he said.
If cohort rules required much smaller than that, the 290-student district south of La Grande would have to shift to distance learning, Dixon said.
“We wouldn’t have any choice,” he said. “There are just not enough classrooms.”
Dixon said that although students’ physical safety is a primary focus, policy makers must also consider students’ mental health needs.
“Without school, without sports, we have stripped away the most constant things in their life,” he said. “They need some normalcy. Normal is never going to be the same, but right now they are kind of lost out there.”
Before the release, La Grande Superintendent George Mendoza said he would be looking for state requirements on things such as attendance, assessments and instructional time.
He said this is not the year to put a lot of academic pressure and stress on students. Instead, the focus needs to be on helping students becoming more resilient and to process the world they are in now, Mendoza said.
“I’m looking for flexibility and understanding,” he said. “The social emotional, mental health, relational side of students needs to be the priority.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA