The Oregon Department of Education updated its guidelines Tuesday to require masks indoors at K-12 schools statewide, even for those who are vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“Two of the most important tools the state has to control COVID-19 are vaccination and face coverings,” the state said in a one-page statement describing the new rule. “However, currently children under the age of 12 are not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use. In order to protect students under age 12, individuals who are not vaccinated, and those with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from COVID-19, as well as to minimize the disruption of student education in schools because of exposure to a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, requiring universal use of face coverings inside schools is the best choice for Oregon.”
With the new rule, if everyone is wearing a mask, and students are at least 3 feet apart, those who are in close contact with someone with the virus don’t need to quarantine unless they have symptoms, according to the state. The mask requirement became effective Monday.
The move comes as virus cases soar throughout Oregon, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday directed the Oregon Health Authority and state Department of Education to create the rule, an announcement that was met with backlash from several of Central Oregon’s smaller school districts.
“I will not tolerate any mandate that risks the safety, learning, or social development of our students,” Stefanie Garber, the superintendent of Culver School District, said in a letter to families on Friday. “Our district will do whatever it takes to retain the stance of local decision making and have masks be optional, honoring each family’s wishes for their own student.”
Jay Mathisen, the superintendent of Jefferson County School District, asked that the governor reconsider the announcement and work with local leaders to craft a more flexible approach.
“The challenges are complex and the fatigue is mounting,” Mathisen said in a letter to families. “However, mandating masks for all in all school settings is a blunt instrument that misses the mark, inflicts damage, and discounts collective wisdom and capacity in our local settings across our state.”
Crook County School District Superintendent Sara Johnson said in a message to parents, “My goal is to allow staff and families to make their own health decisions about masks, while also fully supporting anyone who wants to wear one for their own protection.”
Meanwhile, summer school programs at the Redmond School District began Monday giving students and staff the option to wear a mask.
Redmond schools, like other school districts, said it will wait to review the state’s rule before deciding whether or not to comply.
Bend-La Pine Schools, Central Oregon’s largest school district, said it will comply with a state mask mandate.
In a notice to parents, students and staff on Friday, the school district said it will require masks for all students and staff when indoors during summer school, which began in person Monday.
“Schools have masks on hand for those students who need them,” the school district said. “Masking is one of several layers of protections that we have in place in our schools to help ensure the health of our students during this pandemic.”