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Medford schools won’t require masks at outdoor events, will implement ‘test-to-stay’

In a news conference Monday, the Medford School District applauded major actions last week by the state to lift the outdoor mask mandate and make available enough coronavirus testing kits to implement a highly demanded program to help keep students in school instead of quarantine.

In response to the changes made by the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education, Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said the district has “plenty” of kits to implement the test-to-stay program and will no longer require masks at outdoor sporting events or extracurricular activities.

“The amount of management that our athletic folks and other employees have had to try to manage during this is incredibly challenging,” Champion told reporters via Zoom. “Hats off to those folks for doing an incredible job. So, just an appreciation that that’s one less thing they’re going to have to manage for outdoor events is terrific.”

The decision to lift the outdoor mask mandate comes after the district released a statement last month noting some unsafe behaviors at its games, including little mask-wearing and social distancing.

Even on days when there are no games, not requiring masks outdoors will have an impact on students’ day-to-day activities, the Medford superintendent noted. For example, unmasked kids climbing on playground equipment won’t have to worry about putting one on if they have a close conversation outdoors with a playmate.

Regarding test-to-stay, the state’s education department announced at its news conference ahead of the Thanksgiving break that an “adequate and stable COVID-19 test kit supply has been acquired for all public and private schools” to implement that policy.

But Champion said Monday the state has been “incredibly prompt” in issuing Medford schools coronavirus testing kits, so there is no need for more at this point.

Champion had been in contact with education department officials on test-to-stay even before it was announced. He believes it is a “nice first step,” but it “could be so much more helpful” if it applied to things like extracurricular activities, where Medford schools are seeing the most COVID-19 cases.

According to the ODE’s and OHA’s coronavirus measures, test-to-stay may not be used following extracurricular exposures because masking in these settings is optional and the risk of transmission within the cohort is greater. Similarly, test to stay may not be used following community or in-home exposures.

That is why Champion supports the school board sending a letter to the governor asking it to give the district more local control over COVID-19 prevention policies. The letter — which was not available online — could be approved at the board’s next meeting Dec. 2.

More control, Champion explained, would bolster Medford schools’ ongoing conversations on COVID-19 mitigation with Jackson County Health and Human Services.

“Allowing us to talk about, ‘what does it look like about test-to-stay if the exposure comes from somewhere else?’ What does it look like if we talk about test-to-stay and the kid doesn’t have to wear a mask during workouts,’” Champion said, naming different exposure scenarios at schools.

Test-to-stay only applies to “unvaccinated asymptomatic individuals who were exposed in indoor and outdoor school settings where universal masking is fully in place,” according to an ODE news release.

The program calls for these individuals to be tested twice during the seven days following exposure. First, as soon as the exposure has been identified, and second, between days 5-7 following the exposure.

“Test-to-stay is a form of modified quarantine, which allows individuals to attend school during their 7-day quarantine period,” the department stated in a news release. “However, individuals participating in test-to-stay are expected to maintain quarantine outside of classroom settings.”

Students participating in test-to-stay may “participate in school-related extracurricular activities during their 7-day quarantine period but must wear face coverings at all times during these activities,” the release stated.

Students must get parent/guardian consent before participating in test-to-stay.

The Mail Tribune reached out to a few other school districts Monday to get their reaction on the state’s COVID-19 policy decisions. Officials said it was too early to comment extensively, and more information on plans and next steps is expected to come later in the week.

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