An OSBA webinar helped clarify back-to-school rules Tuesday night even as presenters warned Gov. Kate Brown would likely make some of the information obsolete Wednesday.
The free webinar for school board members focused heavily on the new mask mandate, which has riled up parents and school leaders.
On July 29, Brown reversed the advisory nature of the Oregon Department of Education face covering guidelines and announced all students and staff would be required to wear masks in schools. Many parents have reacted angrily, demanding that their children be allowed to attend school without masks.
Superintendents and school boards have also pushed back, drafting resolutions and letters asking the governor and ODE to return control to local leaders. Many question why students must wear masks in schools when they can go without while playing sports or in stores.
That is about to change. Brown said Tuesday that she would announce a statewide indoor mask mandate at a Wednesday news conference.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger opened the webinar by explaining the impetus for the return of mask requirements. The delta virus, a more contagious COVID-19 variant, is spreading rapidly, and infection levels are nearing record highs. Alarmingly, infections among children are surging while school is out, and health professionals are worried about what will happen when students are congregating in classrooms again.
Data show masks are an effective means of preventing the spread in schools, Sidelinger said.
State officials plan to review the school mask mandate monthly, but Sidelinger could not say exactly what metrics they would judge it by. He said they would be looking at federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and data such as vaccination rates and disease spread.
ODE Director Colt Gill said he knew school leaders were facing challenging conversations but it was important for communities to understand the urgency.
“The mask requirement is in place primarily because we want to hold school full time for every student every school day this school year,” he said.
ODE is encouraging schools to work patiently with individual students and families to educate them on the need for wearing masks properly. If they won’t comply, he said, remote instruction is an option.
School leaders are also worried about mass student refusals to wear masks and even potentially violent protests. Gill said the governor is still working out the best way to support schools, including offering state police help.
Some school leaders are also floating refusing to require masks.
Gill said enforcement would be in response to complaints from staff, students or community members. Complaints would be investigated by the Oregon Occupational Safety & Health agency, with possible fines ranging into thousands of dollars. The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission could also investigate licensed educators, with punishments including loss of license.
OSBA Executive Director Jim Green, who is a lawyer, said school leaders could potentially be held personally liable if they willfully ignored the governor’s lawful orders.
Green reminded attendees that ODE has reduced its requirements from more than 100 mandates to just four: a plan for operations, a recovery services process, quarantine and isolation protocols, and indoor face coverings.
“We are trying to get more local control back in,” Green said. “It’s something OSBA supports adamantly, but we also support the safety of our students, our staff and our community.”