fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Some districts still bristle over masking in schools

Mail Tribune/file photo Perry Dudley, Medford School District head custodian, and Ron Havniear, Medford School District manager, separate desks at Griffin Creek Elementary School to give students enough space to social distance.
When OHA filed rules last week to continue mask-wearing at K-12 institutions during the Omicron surge, the responses from district leaders were varied

To ensure their expiration doesn’t lapse, the Oregon Health Authority filed “permanent rules” for two coronavirus prevention measures regarding K-12 schools, one for indoor mask-wearing and another for the vaccine mandate pertaining to employees.

The rules replace temporary ones, which expired last Friday after being in effect 180 days, according to an OHA news release issued late Friday.

The agency can, however, loosen or rescind the rules as conditions with the pandemic change — a point Natalie Hurd, communications director for the Medford School District, noted when asked about the rule changes by the newspaper this week. She said the district didn’t have any comments on the extension of the rules.

But the OHA’s recent actions still invoke a range of emotions from people close to various school districts in the valley.

Walt Davenport, superintendent of Central Point School District 6, was careful to balance his personal feelings about the continued mask requirements with his responsibilities as a leader, recognizing the pandemic still presents real challenges, like staffing shortages.

“I am very disappointed in the continuation of mask requirements, but I do think that the current conditions with the omicron variant and quick spread do warrant continued precautions,” he wrote in an email. “Our ability to keep schools open is directly related to our ability to appropriately staff our buildings. At times, we are running on a razor thin margin with people out sick.”

Chery Stritenberg, an Eagle Point parent and school board member, was disappointed in the OHA and how it responded to public hearings, which she said contained a majority of people against mask-wearing in schools.

“If you have that many people that say they are not in support and then you go ahead and send it through anyway, why did you bother (holding a hearing)?” Stritenberg asked. “Wouldn’t you think if you’re going to have a public comment period, you’d actually take that information into consideration?”

She called the OHA’s decision “government overreach.”

“As much as they’ll sit there and say that they can flip the switch at any given time, obviously, they are not listening to the people,” Stritenberg claimed. “It would be one thing if I felt I could trust them in the decisions that they have made, but by the things that they are doing, I do not trust their decision-making process.”

OHA stated in a news release late last week the rule filings would ensure more people wear masks during the current surge, which state health officer and state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger forecast to reach its peak over the next two weeks.

And once a drop in hospitalizations starts to occur “in the coming weeks to month and a half,” then state officials can start discussing changing the mask mandate parameters, he said.

“It’ll be a time to start talking about, can we move from a requirement for masks in indoor public spaces to a recommendation for certain populations or in certain communities where rates are higher?” Sidelinger said.

Davenport said he was “very optimistic” OHA will stick by its position of reviewing the mask requirements for schools after the surge.

“We all want to see students’ and teachers’ faces, and the fatigue of mask requirements is absolutely real,” he said.

Stritenberg, who has an elementary school-age child, echoed those comments.

“This masking all day long — kids need to be able to see (facial) expressions; they’re depressed,” she said. “I’ve helped with the end-of-year things, when they do a slideshow, and I can’t tell you the darkness in the eyes of these kids when you’ve got their pictures being taken with these masks on.”

Stritenberg was adamant that kids don’t really want to wear masks; they just do as they’re told.

“If you actually have conversations with them, none of them want to wear the mask — except for some that might be sincerely scared,” she said.

Stritenberg’s comments come at the same time her district has put out a survey to families asking if they’d like to see the mask rule continue. That survey closes Feb. 4.

Though the Eagle Point School District, which passed a resolution for “local control” of COVID-19 prevention measures, says the survey results will “aid us in our (advocacy) efforts,” the answers will not be used as a pretext to usurp the state guidelines.

“Due to the financial and legal implications of violating this state legal requirement, the district will continue to comply with the mask mandate until it is revised or repealed,” the district’s letter to families stated.

But at least one district in the state has gone against the mask guidelines. On Monday, the Alsea School District began allowing mask-wearing only as an option in its schools after Superintendent Marc Thielman, who is also a Republican gubernatorial candidate, called them “harmful to the school climate.”

In an email to the Mail Tribune, he said the new policy “will continue for the rest of the school year and beyond if we have it our way.”

He added that the Oregon Department of Education has "frozen" Alsea School District’s Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief I, II and III funds totaling “about $275,000.”

“The district anticipated this and our inability to access these funds at this time is not an issue for our operation,” Thielman wrote.

Central Point School District parent Laura Cole praised the Alsea School District as a leader in the charge to stop masks in public schools.

“My message is clear, it is not just to Walt but to all five members of the school board, asking them to take a stand (and) say no more to forced mask wearing, and say yes to optional parent/family/student choice,” Cole wrote in an email to the newspaper. “I absolutely think we can be effective, but we must band together and not rely on our neighbors to do the work, we must come together as a community and put the pressure on them, we are the ones they are serving.”

Davenport said he has received a number of emails from families asking the district to disregard the mask mandate.

“While I am very empathetic about (the) situation, our primary goal right now is to maintain in-person instruction opportunities for all students, and that is what we intend to do,” he wrote in an email to the newspaper.

Though Stritenberg supports optional mask-wearing, she is not in favor of her district doing so with the risk of losing funding or lawsuits.

“The bottom line is, with those kinds of consequences, no, I’m not comfortable taking a risk like that at this moment in time,” Stritenberg said. “I’m hoping there’s enough pressure from more districts that maybe this will just go away. If we had more people standing up, I think it would end tomorrow.”

Eva Skuratowicz, chairwoman of the Ashland School Board, told the Mail Tribune her board members and the district’s superintendent support mask-wearing in schools “to keep schools healthy places for students and staff.” Skuratowicz declined to weigh in on the controversy surrounding Alsea schools.

Subtle expressions of skepticism surrounding the state’s handling of COVID-19 prevention measures for schools have manifested itself in letters to the governor and/or resolutions passed by school boards.

Rogue Valley school boards that have publicly supported “local control” of COVID-19 protocols include Medford, Eagle Point and Rogue River. The Phoenix-Talent School Board will consider a resolution on the matter Thursday. Rogue River plans to revisit the matter with a new resolution sometime this month.

Local school districts that have not issued a letter to the governor or passed a resolution on local control include Central Point and Ashland.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.