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Schools already planning for mask-free days before new guidance comes out
The Oregon Department of Education strongly recommends school districts consider the metrics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when making mask rules.
The Oregon Department of Education has set the stage for schools’ next phase of COVID-19 response, but its latest guidance is mostly suggestions, not rules.
ODE revealed Wednesday an updated “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework.” The framework does not take effect until after 11:59 p.m. March 11, the same time the statewide and school mask mandates end.
The framework includes numerous health and safety “advisory” recommendations and revised information while putting most decisions on COVID-19 responses in the hands of local school and health officials.
“We’re glad to see that decisions such as this will be made at the local level,” said Jim Green, OSBA executive director. “As we continue the important goal of keeping schools open, our schools must also work with local health officials to prioritize the well-being of our students, staffs and communities.”
School leaders around the state have been under tremendous public and student pressure to drop mask rules, and many districts have said they will make mask rules optional as soon as possible. It has been a rapid week of school adjustments, as the end of the mask mandate moved from March 31 to March 19 to March 12, partly prompted by changes in federal guidance.
The ODE framework strongly recommends school leaders consider Friday’s guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC dropped its recommendation for universal K-12 school masking while continuing to emphasize the need for masks for the safety of vulnerable populations. It introduced a COVID-19 Community Levels metric based on the number of new cases, hospitalizations and hospital beds per 100,000 people.
Counties are rated as having low, medium or high levels of COVID-19. At the high level, the CDC recommends masks for all indoors, including schools and regardless of vaccination status. As of last week, 16 Oregon counties were labeled as high, mostly in southern and central Oregon.
Klamath Falls City Schools Board Chair Lori Theros said there is no appetite on her board to extend the mask rule beyond March 12 even though Klamath County is in the high level. The community has told her they want masks to be optional, Theros said, and she is “cautiously optimistic” it is the right time.
“I certainly hope we are doing the right thing by our little guys,” said Theros, an OSBA Board member.
Individuals in Oregon will still have the right to wear masks even if the school doesn’t require them, and ODE encourages schools to be supportive.
It is time to move on to other issues, said Crook County School Board Chair Scott Cooper.
“It is harder and harder to support the need with our community, who are taking their own masks off,” he said.
March 12 is two years to the day from when Gov. Kate Brown first announced pandemic school closures. Signs and placards for handwashing, physical distancing and COVID-19 symptoms dot schools, but a return of visible smiles (and frowns) will mark another step toward more normalcy. Still some rules remain.
Vaccination requirements for teachers, staff and volunteers and any related mask agreements for exceptions remain in effect, although schools can consider altering the terms of the exceptions.
Schools must exclude unvaccinated students and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 and follow their communicable disease plan if there is an outbreak. Contact tracing and quarantines have been paused because the latest research says the disease’s rapid transmission makes them ineffective.
ODE is offering an enhanced test-to-stay program, and schools will still offer diagnostic testing.
School districts must review and update as needed their “Operational Plan/Safe Return to In-person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan.” Schools must also assess the need for students’ individualized COVID-19 recovery services.
OSBA is working to update guidances on what the new rules and the April 1 end of Brown’s COVID-19 emergency declaration will mean for schools.
ODE originally pegged March 31 to end the mask rule to give school districts time to prepare, but ODE said superintendents told them they could be ready in much less time.
Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe said her district has already sent a notice to parents about the end of masks. Their plan includes asking the parents of elementary students to tell schools if they want their children to keep wearing masks so the teachers can help enforce that.
Umatilla County is currently considered medium risk. Sipe said the district is unlikely to go back to required masks if cases go up. She said the district provides a weekly update of case levels in classes and staff so parents can make informed decisions about the risks to their children.
Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney, who is in a high-risk county, said they will stay mask optional after March 12 unless local health authorities tell him he needs to do something different.
“That is the direction my community, my board, wants us to go,” said Sweeney, president of the Oregon Association of School Executives.
During a Wednesday news conference to address the updates, ODE Director Colt Gill urged consideration for those who will have concerns about dropping masks and recognition that everyone has different health needs. He also reiterated that although significant changes to school operations are coming, vigilance to health and safety protocols is still needed.
“This can feel like this is signaling the end of the pandemic, and I want to be clear that that’s not the intention here,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA