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Excitement mixes with quiet concerns about when masks come off
Canby second-grader Santiago Mendez-Garcia has worn a mask at school since the first part of his kindergarten year.
School without a mask next week will be “kind of interesting,” he said. School leaders agree, as they wait to see how many decide to wear masks and the reactions of staff and students.
School mask mandates in Oregon and around the country have been an explosive issue as many parents, students and educators have demanded to make their own decisions. On Monday, March 14, Oregon schools will be able to offer that option for the first time this school year.
Numerous Oregon school districts, including the Canby School District, have announced they will make mask wearing optional for staff and students after the state mask mandate ends Saturday, March 12. It's been two years since Gov. Kate Brown first announced schools would be closing because of COVID-19.
Schools have spent the past two weeks getting ready for this seismic mental and physical shift. Not only will masks be coming off, but many school districts plan to start letting parents and volunteers return to the classrooms for the first time since the pandemic began.
Oregon officials gave school districts two weeks to prepare for the change, which includes a pause on quarantining and contact tracing. The Oregon Department of Education has been revising its guidances, with more updates promised Friday, March 11. School leaders say they have been preparing for months already. They have showered their families with communications on the new rules and expectations. For nearly all districts that have announced plans, it boils down to giving mask choice to staff and students and asking for respect for everyone’s decisions.
The West Linn-Wilsonville School District released videos in English and Spanish on March 4 about expectations. Communications Director Andrew Kilstrom said the videos had been in the works for a while and just needed some final touches once the official date was known.
Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty said they are reaching out to the families of children on health plans to see if they need to take additional precautions, such as extra seating space or asking staff members to wear a mask when interacting with the child.
School leaders also say they will continue other COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as health screenings and extra cleaning. Witty said the additional sanitary efforts are probably here to stay.
Canby Superintendent Aaron Downs said his district has not seen the protests and agitated mask opposition some districts have experienced, but the majority of parents have told him they want mask choice. Downs said parents and staff have expressed concern about the end of mask requirements but haven’t asked him to extend the requirement.
Walking around Canby’s Lee Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon revealed some of the contradictions Oregonians are feeling.
Sixth grader Micah Rivera said he planned to wear his mask next week but only under his chin because he is so used to having it on. Still, he said the end of the mask mandate is “pretty cool.”
“You get the option instead of them forcing you to,” he said.
Jenne Parker, an instructional specialist, is excited to see children’s faces for the first time but she may wear a mask next week, mostly because she doesn’t want to take a chance on getting sick right before spring break.
School districts are reminding parents to keep children home if they are sick, not only because of COVID-19 but also because of the usual illnesses. School districts are bracing for an uptick in absences as germs will be able to spread a little more easily again.
Parents waiting Wednesday to pick their children up from Lee Elementary mostly said they would let their children decide if they wanted to wear masks. The parents worry about teasing as well as their children’s health.
“It’s kind of scary,” said Grizelda Zamora, who has a first grader. “They haven’t said the virus is done.”
Beatrice Sanchez said her family has talked about the importance of protecting your health versus the desire to fit in. She said her sixth grader feels safer wearing his mask and her kindergartener just does what mom says because she doesn’t mind the masks. But Sanchez also knows she can’t really force them to keep masks on while they are at school.
Some districts are asking teachers to support parents' wishes for mask wearing. Downs said Canby has asked parents to talk to teachers, but he has not asked his teachers to become “mask police.” He said they have enough stress already, and he wants the end of the mask mandate to alleviate some of their burden.
“Any return to some normalcy will help,” he said. “We are excited about providing some rays of hope.”
Billy Spencer said he would have liked to see the mask mandate continue and plans to have his first grader wear a mask at least through next week. He thinks a lot of parents feel like him but don’t want to speak up. He compares the quiet acceptance of mask mandates’ end with the way people will take their masks off after walking into a store if nobody else is wearing one.
Spencer, however, would like to move beyond the mask discussion and get back to schools’ focusing on providing the missed education his children need.
With the end just days away, Canby students were still dutifully wearing their masks Wednesday. Some even wore them outside at recess when they didn’t have to.
Sixth grader Rudy Chavez Cruz, sitting at a table in the library, had a blue paper mask over his mouth and nose. He said he couldn't wait to take his mask off next week but said that will carry “loads of responsibility.”
He will have to be a lot more careful to cover his nose and mouth when he sneezes or coughs, he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA