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Can students wear face shields instead of masks?

We know that face coverings will be required in school. But what if the student can’t stand breathing through a mask and would much rather wear a face shield? Is that allowed? Or how about not wearing a covering or a shield?

— Carmen, Eagle Point

After reviewing the Oregon Department of Education’s most recent update to its Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, the truth is, Carmen, we could dedicate an entire story and perhaps even a series to the face-mask-versus-face-shield question.

The short answer to your specific question is no, but the long answer would involve decoding the ODE’s three-page explanation. So how about we split the difference and go with a medium answer.

“In general,” the latest RSSL guidance (version 5.5.0) reads on page 29, “face coverings are preferred over face shields, as they may provide better containment of small aerosols that can be produced while talking. Use of a face shield alone should only be done on a very limited basis, because wearing a face shield alone without a mask or face covering increases the potential for transmission of viruses to those in the same room as the individual without the mask or face covering.”

The guidance further states that individuals may remove their face covering while working alone in a private office or when separated by more than six feet in outside learning spaces.

Now for the exceptions. Face shields are considered an acceptable alternative “when a student has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask or face covering, or when people need to see the student’s mouth and tongue motions in order to communicate.”

Students who abstain from wearing a face covering or students whose families decide they won’t comply must be provided access to instruction — for those folks, comprehensive distance learning will be that option.

Additional provisions apply to students protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. According to RSSL guidance, students with “existing medical conditions and a physician’s orders” to not wear face coverings must not be denied any in-person instruction. But what about the other students — those who may then be put in harm’s way? The guidance goes on to list some appropriate actions to minimize the possibility of exposure: offering different types of face coverings and face shields; spaces away from peers while the face covering is removed; short face-covering breaks; and additional instruction.

A highlighted note in the state’s guidance emphasizes that no disability category “universally prescribes” whether a student will be able to wear a face covering, but advises that certain disability categories are more likely to have difficulty wearing face coverings. According to RSSL, these include autism spectrum disorder, other health impairment, emotional behavior disability and orthopedic impairment.

In short, Carmen, parents who check with their school and get a doctor’s note — an avenue Medford Superintendent Bret Champion mentioned when asked about the rule Thursday — may be able to send their child to school with a face shield instead of a face covering.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.