CDC calls for return to masks in schools for all
Students were required to wear masks indoors during McMinnville School District summer programs earlier this month. New mask guidance Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will force Oregon districts to reconsider their rules for fall. (Photo courtesy of Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum)
The rampaging COVID-19 Delta variant is shaking the foundations of Oregon school leaders’ fall plans. Surging infection numbers are bringing back calls for masks at the same time as mask opponents are becoming more entrenched.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention altered its guidance Tuesday, recommending that all students and staff should wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status. Later Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority recommended universal mask usage indoors throughout the state. The Oregon Department of Education, which works closely with OHA on its recommendations, will have to look at updating advice that it released just last week.
Coquille School District Superintendent Tim Sweeney said parents, especially in rural areas such as his, will push back hard if the state or districts require masks.
“They’ve hit the wall with all of this,” Sweeney said. “I think you will see superintendents lose their jobs at an alarming rate if they require masks.”
School board meetings around the state have rung with parents’ arguments, threats and pleas over masks and returning children to full-time, in-person instruction.
Despite the heat, Sweeney said he hopes ODE continues to let local leaders work with area health officials to make the decisions.
Lincoln County School District Superintendent Karen Gray had a similar reaction.
“I want ODE to keep this decision at a local level only,” she said in an email. “It allows us to do what is right for us."
The new CDC guidance follows hard on the heels of a similar recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
On July 22, the Oregon Department of Education released its “Safe Schools, Ready Learners Resiliency Framework.” It strongly recommended masks, along with other safety measures, but left the decision up to local leaders.
“Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework for the 2021-22 School Year is aligned with current CDC guidance,” ODE Director Colt Gill said in a statement. “As new updates from CDC become available, ODE will review any changes with the Oregon Health Authority and the governor and make aligned updates to our guidance for schools.”
The framework itself says ODE and OHA will monitor CDC guidance and “align this recommendation framework as needed.”
School leaders, reluctant to expose themselves to the public’s ire, had been waiting on the ODE framework to reveal their plans. The CDC’s latest shift will likely cause some leaders to continue to hold off for the latest word from ODE. School districts don’t have to submit their plans to ODE until Aug. 23.
The latest data show the Delta variant behaves differently than previous strains, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a news conference Tuesday. In rare cases, people who have been vaccinated may have contracted and spread the Delta variant, research shows.
The CDC continues to strongly urge vaccinations because of their proven ability to prevent disease and to lessen the effects and spread of COVID-19 in the rare cases people still get sick.
Masks help prevent disease transmission, and the CDC is strongly recommending that all people wear masks indoors in areas of “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission, defined as counties with more than 50 cases per 100,000 over a 7-day period.
In Oregon, the CDC says two-thirds of counties have “high” or “substantial” transmission. The Oregon Health Authority reported Tuesday that the Delta variant had increased tenfold in the past two weeks and is associated with 80% of new cases.
Walensky acknowledged that it has been less than three weeks since their last school guidance and that people are tired and frustrated with changing advice.
“I know it is not a welcome piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people’s lives who have already been vaccinated,” she said. “Public health experts, scientific experts, medical experts, when shown these data have universally said this requires action.”
Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe said school leaders and parents appreciate clear guidance from government education and health agencies but the final decisions should be based on local conditions and desires. Sipe was on Gov. Kate Brown’s “Healthy Schools Reopening Council” and the national COVID-19 advisory task force for The School Superintendents Association.
On Tuesday morning, Sipe was just getting ready to make a video for her community on the district’s plans. She said she would alter the script to remind parents to be prepared for change as the research and the guidances evolve.
Sipe said her district is planning to make masks optional for students, although unvaccinated staff will be required to wear them. She said they would do their best to accommodate a range of parents’ feelings about masks, such as keeping some distance between masked and unmasked students.
Sipe said she would encourage parents to read through the guidances, make the best decision for their children and to let the district know.
“I can’t make every individual family happy,” Sipe said, “but what I can do is to look for solutions that can serve groups of like-minded parents.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA