Mandatory school masking rules will end March 31, the Oregon Health Authority announced Monday.
With the COVID-19 omicron variant appearing to have reached its peak, statewide hospitalization rates are expected to return to pre-surge levels in the coming weeks. OHA and the Oregon Department of Education have decided the time is coming to ease the mask rules.
OHA will lift the statewide indoor masking rule no later than March 31, but earlier if statewide transmission and hospitalization rates warrant it. The separate school mask rule, however, will remain in effect until March 31 to give schools time to prepare new rules and protocols. It also gives families time to vaccinate their children.
ODE plans to prepare new guidance before the rule is lifted.
The announcement is welcome news for school board members and superintendents who have been calling for more local control, but the change will usher in a new batch of consequential decisions.
ODE warns that moving away from universal masking will likely lead to more days missed by staff and students.
Hillsboro School Board Vice Chair Nancy Thomas said she welcomes the change but the coming discussions with school staff and the community are going to be tough, with fears on both sides of the mask issue.
Thomas is especially concerned about impacts on teachers’ health that could prevent adequate staffing to continue in-person learning.
School districts and county health agencies will still be able to impose mask rules, and they can set metrics for a return to masks.
Klamath County School District Superintendent Glen Szymoniak said he is prepared to require masks if another variant comes surging but he likes that he will be able to tailor his response to the need. The Klamath County School Board has passed three resolutions asking for more control to work with local health authorities.
Szymoniak said the district will continue to employ other health protocols, such as social distancing and frequent handwashing, but masks have been especially hard on staff and students. He acknowledges the end of masking will be upsetting for some.
“It probably won’t work well for everyone,” he said, “but overwhelmingly people will greet this with a lot of joy.”
Hood River School Board Chair Chrissy Reitz said that as long as the school district makes decisions based on the scientific data, she expects most people to embrace the change. Reitz is a nurse, and her husband is a physician. She said “all arrows are pointing” to it being time to ease mask restrictions.
If school districts make masks optional, they will need to update their federally required Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan. Federal rules still require masks on school buses.
Optional masks would have other repercussions, as many protocols are based on universal masking. Without masks, schools would have to do more contact tracing and monitoring of close contacts.
They also would not be able to use the test-to-stay program that allows students to remain in school with a negative COVID-19 test. Students and staff returning from a quarantine would still have to wear a mask for days 6-10 after the onset.
Unvaccinated employees who reached accommodations with schools that included wearing masks must continue wearing masks unless a new agreement is reached.
ODE and OHA continue to strongly recommend masks as part of a layered mitigation effort. ODE Director Colt Gill encouraged school leaders to seek legal advice on how dropping the mask rule would affect limited liability protections passed by the Oregon Legislature.
Research is mixed on the effectiveness for young people of masking alone, but researchers agree that a layered mitigation effort that includes masks with distancing, vaccinations and other protocols works best to stop COVID-19.
More than a dozen states require masks in schools while at least four have mask bans in place. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend universal indoor school masking, regardless of vaccination status.
In August, Gov. Kate Brown ordered OHA to require masks in all schools. Although some parents and school staff welcomed the protections for vulnerable students and family members, the outcry against masks and for local decision-making has been persistent and defiant.
The Oregon Health Authority made the temporary school rule “permanent” on Jan. 28 but said at the time the rule would be rescinded when conditions warranted it.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA