Who will be behind the mask decisions when the state mandate comes off?
The mask hot potato is back in school leaders’ laps. Who is left holding it will depend a lot on school board-superintendent relationships.
On Monday, the Oregon Health Authority announced it would lift the rule requiring masks in schools on March 31. The decision on whether students will be wearing masks that day will rest with local public health authorities and the decision-makers in school districts, charter schools and private schools, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
OSBA supports the move toward more local decision-making, according to Deputy Executive Director Mary Paulson, but strongly encourages school boards to examine legal, medical, operational and community considerations.
ODE said further guidance is coming, but school boards are already planning meeting agendas to tackle the mask issue.
The school rule will remain in effect until March 31 so schools have time to plan, but the general statewide indoor mask requirement could be lifted sooner, OHA said, depending on factors such as the number of COVID-19 cases and the state’s hospitalization rate. The nebulous end to the state requirement adds to the school uncertainties.
Phoenix-Talent School Board Chair Dawn Watson said board members’ many questions include under what conditions OHA might reinstate masks.
It depends, an OHA spokesperson said Wednesday. If another variant arose that was spreading more quickly, caused more severe disease or reduced the effectiveness of current vaccines, OHA would emphasize the need for Oregonians to take additional precautions but would expect to make a more targeted response rather than a universal masking approach, said Public Affairs Specialist Rudy Owens.
School board members and superintendents remember last summer when Gov. Kate Brown instituted the mask mandate just a week after they were told they would have local control over COVID-19 policies.
School boards, superintendents and families have been agitating for local decision-making ever since.
Just last week, Phoenix-Talent in southern Oregon passed a resolution for “local decision-making ability.” The school board asked for the right to work with their county health authorities to make COVID-19 decisions and asked for clear metrics or targets for any changes to COVID-19 rules.
Watson, an OSBA Board member, said OHA metrics would answer some questions about when and how school districts should set mask policies. She said school boards are also struggling with who should make the final call.
Superintendents make day-to-day operating decisions, which could include mask wearing, but school boards set policy, which could also include COVID-19 responses, she said.
In some situations, a superintendent could implement a mask plan and no board action would be required, according to OSBA lawyers. Whether the board or superintendent makes the decision is dependent on factors including the responsibility delegated by the board to the superintendent and whether there is agreement in the community. Good governance practices, though, call for district leaders to collaboratively reach a plan, according to OSBA’s research-based training advice.
Meanwhile, the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators is discussing with superintendents the best way to approach the return to local decision-making on masks.
Watson leans toward making masks optional in the district but said no matter what they do, clear and detailed communication with families will be crucial.
“It’s really important for families to know what comes with their choices,” she said, both for the district and for their children.
ODE has said that schools that drop universal masking would not be able to participate in the “test-to-stay” program that allows exposed children to remain in school with a negative COVID-19 test. Without masking, schools would also have to increase their contract tracing and monitoring of physical distancing, with more quarantines likely. ODE has said that without masks, more students and school staff would likely miss school.
ODE and OHA have said they will continue to strongly recommend universal masking as a key factor in layered mitigation efforts to stop COVID-19’s transmission. A school’s decision to stop requiring masks raises legal questions about the school’s exposure under a limited liability protection passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2020.
Crook County School Board Chair Scott Cooper said his central Oregon district’s main goal has always been keeping students in school.
“We will put up with stuff we don’t agree with to keep our kids together in person,” he said.
The board sent a letter to OHA in December asking for metrics related to the mask rule. Cooper said the district would follow any requirements set forth by OHA or its local health authority but it isn’t likely to set any requirements of its own.
“I am not a doctor, I am not an epidemiologist, and I’m not a virologist,” Cooper said. “I take my advice from people who are.”
He said the board has generally tried to let the superintendent guide the pandemic response with the board weighing in where necessary.
The district plans to make masks optional, much to the delight of most parents, Cooper said. He said the district would make N95 masks available in schools and schools would do their best to prevent mask shaming.
Cooper rues how school boards have become the center of so many political fights and hopes the end of the mask rule will return some normalcy to board meetings.
“If you don’t like the governor’s emergency powers, go talk to the legislators who can change that,” he said. “We are not the place to have that conversation. We do bonds, budgets and books. That’s it.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA