Oregon is ending its school mask mandate March 19, 12 days earlier than planned, potentially relieving mounting pressures over the state rule.
The Oregon Health Authority announced Thursday morning that it would lift the statewide indoor mask requirement and the school mask mandate March 19, right before most schools’ spring break. School leaders will be able to decide their own mask rules. Earlier this month, OHA said masks would be required in schools until at least March 31 no matter what but the statewide rule could end sooner if conditions improved.
Models show COVID-19 hospitalization rates will fall to pre-omicron levels by March 19, making an earlier end to the mask rule possible, OHA said. At the same time, school district leaders have been asking state officials to keep the school rule in alignment with the state rule, partly to avoid student and community backlash at differing standards.
The Oregon Department of Education initially said the March 31 deadline would be firm so that school districts would have time to prepare, but school leaders have said they can be ready sooner, ODE Director Colt Gill said.
OHA and ODE are working on updating protocols for quarantining, contact tracing and testing and the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework.” State officials continue to strongly recommend universal masking in schools.
In another sign, though, that the pandemic might be entering a new stage, Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday that she will lift her COVID-19 emergency declaration April 1.
Some school boards have already pushed back against the state rules, passing resolutions asking for more local control. The Tillamook School Board recently passed a resolution asking the state to sync the dropping of the state mandate and the school mandate.
Tillamook Superintendent Curt Shelley said it is already difficult to get some students to wear masks and it would be worse if they didn’t have to wear masks at the store but did when they came to school. Although he worries about harassment of students who choose to wear masks after March 19 and the continuing transmission of COVID-19, he said the lifting of the mandate will make the school day easier to manage.
He also hopes it will remove the source of some of the community divisiveness.
Three Oregon districts had already made plans to flout the law and end their mask requirements early.
The Alsea School District made masks optional in January. Since then, a recall has been launched against the board chair and vice chair and the superintendent has resigned. Board Chair Ron Koetz could not be reached for comment on the rule change.
On Feb. 16, the Redmond School Board passed a resolution instructing Superintendent Charan Cline to prepare a plan to make masks optional starting March 2. On Thursday, School Board Chair Shawn Hartfield said the change in dates is exciting and the school board will consider whether it wants to revisit its resolution.
On Feb. 17, the Molalla River School Board passed a resolution to make masks optional March 3. A week later, the board changed the mask-optional date back to March 31 after the board learned more from OSBA about potential consequences, Chair Mark Lucht said.
According to ODE, as long as the school mask rule is in effect districts could be fined daily for each school site not in compliance. ODE can withhold federal COVID-19 emergency funds until a district is in compliance and produces a signed assurance it will stay so.
ODE said other ramifications could include resignations of legal counsel, loss of education service district services and contractors refusing to work on site. The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission could also investigate, affecting educators’ licensing and professional standing.
Lucht said the district faces an immediate complaint to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, the enforcing agency for the mask rules. He said the district received a letter from ODE and a demand from the teachers union to bargain working conditions. The board also learned there is the possibility of lawsuits against individuals as well as the district, he said.
Lucht said he hopes the March 19 date will take some pressure off school staff and relieve some tension with parents deeply opposed to masks. But he said the sudden changing of the date also makes it seem arbitrary, possibly fueling more distrust.
“People start to wonder if this is medical science or political science,” he said.
The mask mandate this school year has put an enormous strain on superintendents and school boards, often causing friction as they try to balance state regulations with parent demands. Lucht said he would like to see masks removed sooner but he hopes March 19 proves to be a compromise that allows schools to get back to a more normal year and focus on students.
“This is a no-win situation,” he said. “Superintendents and school boards are trying to thread a needle.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA