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MSD drops mask requirement

MT file photo Freshman Molly Nutting, left, and junior Ashley Rowton study at North Medford High School.
Policy change to take effect when Summer Experience resumes Monday

The Medford School District has decided to remove the face covering requirement for the rest of its Summer Experience summer school program, which will resume Monday with the second week of Session 2.

The move was announced by the district Wednesday night, 12 days after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that effective June 30 she was rescinding Executive Order 21-06, which forced schools to comply with health and safety protocols to slow the spread of COVID-19. Brown’s announcement coincided with the state’s release of its new Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework, which replaces Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance for the upcoming school year.

The key sentence from the RSSLRF is under the “Local Decision Making” header near the bottom of page 2: “Except where compliance is mandated by existing state law, this resiliency framework is advisory.” Previously, school districts were required to follow RSSL guidance.

Medford Superintendent Bret Champion and the Medford school board discussed during its June 24 board meeting the possibility of making masks optional at Summer Experience following the then soon-to-be released guidance. As of Thursday morning, it’s official.

“The thing that’s going to be different is we are going to make face coverings optional,” Champion said Wednesday. “Students and staff can continue to wear face coverings if they choose to do so. We know that the guidance says that face coverings protect the wearer, and so we feel like that’s the best of both worlds given the amount of feedback — strong feedback — we’ve received from families about having masks being optional.”

The second of MSD’s four two-week Summer Experience sessions resumes Monday after a weeklong break for Independence Day. The next session runs from July 19 to July 29, and the final stint from Aug. 2 to Aug. 12.

The change does not necessarily mean the district will also drop its mask requirement when the 2021-22 school year begins Aug. 23, although Champion indicated that will likely be the case unless the state changes its stance.

“What we’ll do is pay attention to that for the next couple weeks and then by the end of July we’ll be able to share our fall plan, what it’s going to look like in our schools,” he said. “We’re leaning toward implementing this for the fall. That’s not been finalized but that’s what we’re leaning toward. But (the Oregon Department of Education) is putting out new guidance around July 22 and so we don’t want to do anything definitive for the fall until we see their final, final guidance.”

Champion said the district has received a “pretty significant” amount of feedback from families regarding its face covering mandate, particularly after the most recent change that made state guidance advisory rather than required. That feedback came in all forms, he said, from emails to phone calls to face-to-face meetings. A group called Maskless Women of Southern Oregon has also stayed in touch with the district consistently since the spring.

Prior to its June 24 meeting the board had considered sending a letter to Brown requesting the change to the state’s mask requirements — communications coordinator Natalie Hurd drafted the letter, but it wasn’t sent because Brown’s June 25 announcement rendered it moot.

Champion said the district moved quickly to implement the policy change during Summer Experience for several reasons.

“Education is better and more pleasant and more fun when you have a mask off,” he said. “And we know that because we’ve lived it. And we know that COVID is one thing we want to reduce, but we also want to be very aware of a high-quality education for our kids, of their social and emotional state and of our abilities to communicate well with our students and with each other. And as we weighed those benefits and the science that says for the wearer of the mask, it does have a positive effect in reducing COVID, then it seems like a win to be able to say they are optional. If you want to wear them, great. We will work with families and/or staff that want to do so.”

As the board discussed the possibility of lifting its mask requirement during the June 24 meeting, Champion was adamant that he would not be pulling administrators back from vacations or rushing a decision.

“We’re all very excited about this opportunity but we need some time to make sure we’re rolling out things that make sense,” he told the board. “What we don’t want to do is to over-step in the summer and then under-step in the fall. We want to get the fall right, and the summer is the perfect opportunity for us to try some things and to make that work. … I know we want to say to the public, ‘Hey, we’re taking off the masks in the fall.’ I can tell you we are very interested in getting to that point, but we need to work a process to get to that point.”

On Wednesday, Champion said he ended up changing his mind on the first part of that declaration.

“We pulled people out of their vacations,” he said. “We did. We did a lot of things electronically and had some conversations.”

While the mask requirement will be lifted, the district will continue other COVID-19-related safety measures, including the maintenance of contact logs, implementing quarantining and contact tracing when infections are discovered, increased sanitation practices and physical distancing of at least three feet “to the maximum extent possible.”

“So those are things we’ve already been doing,” Champion said. “We will continue all those other safety measures. So we’re not getting rid of any of these things. We’re going to continue to clean and disinfect, increase fresh air intake — we’ve upgraded to MERV 13 filters across the board — and continue to train and dedicate schools to COVID safety.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.