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Local school districts hint at optional mask rule soon

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneStudents watch a basketball game inside the South Medford High School gym.
Medford and Central Point school officials want masks to be a choice come end of March; other districts need more time to think

The Medford School District is positioning itself to implement an optional mask rule in its schools come March 31 in response to the state’s announcement late Monday on the end of mandatory masking indoors.

Superintendent Bret Champion made the announcement concerning his district in an almost spur-of-the-moment virtual news conference Monday afternoon. But his remarks did not come without a word of caution at the outset.

“We know that there are families who think that is just a long time to wait, and we’re ready to take the masks off now — and we hear you and we appreciate that,” Champion said. “We know that you know that our teachers and our principals and the district are following the requirements that the state has set. We don’t get to pick and choose the laws we follow; we follow the laws.”

On that note, even though the state announced it would drop general masking requirements for indoor public spaces — including schools — by March 31, health officials stressed the importance of keeping the protocol in place for now as hospitalizations remain high.

Champion said that optional masking would come not through an order from the school board, but a conversation with Jackson County Public Health.

“We’ll keep the board informed and certainly talk about it at future board meetings,” Champion said. “But our next step will be to visit with Jackson County Public Health; they’re just hearing this for the first time today, as well. We’ll need to take a look at making sure the trends continue and is there a level everyone is comfortable with. I don’t know how that conversation will go, but Jackson County has been an incredible partner.”

A spokesperson with the county health agency did not respond to a Mail Tribune inquiry for this story by deadline, but Champion noted that the agency generally makes recommendations, not requirements.

“What’s important is the conversation, and that we’re on the same page with how contract tracing will work, because that will be back in place,” he said, adding that topics like how quarantining and isolation work will be discussed. “It’s not just us; all the school districts in Jackson County will need to have that conversation.”

Just as Medford school officials were reacting to the news that OHA was lifting the indoor mask mandate, other school districts within the Rogue Valley sent out messages to families, as well. But other districts said they would need more time to fully respond.

“We are pleased with the recent announcement by the Oregon Health Authority to lift the state mask requirement on March 31, 2022, and return to local decision-making for K-12 schools,” Kristin Hosfelt​, communications and public relations specialist with Grants Pass School District 7, wrote to the Mail Tribune. “We will be working with our local public health authority to plan for adopting this change. We look forward to sharing more with staff, students and families soon.”

Central Point School District 6 issued a statement to families saying it too would pursue an optional mask rule in schools after March 31.

“We will continue navigating the guidance (and) regulations to ensure we keep our schools open and accessible for all our students,” the statement read. “As more details become available about these changes, we will keep you informed.”

If there were another coronavirus surge, Champion said Medford schools would be ready to deal with it.

“That’s where that relationship with Jackson County Public Health is so important,” he said. “If we’re with local control at that point, that’s where local control matters; we’d be looking at Jackson County specifically. If it were a statewide thing, I don’t think ODE and OHA would hesitate to reinstate the mask mandate if cases start to spike.”

For now, Medford schools would implement an optional masking policy based on the state COVID-19 case projections, which show that by late March there will be about 400 or fewer hospitalizations — the level of hospitalizations the state experienced before the omicron variant began to spread.

Champion noted the low level of infections seen last summer, when it implemented summer learning programs, to explain how not having masks in schools would impact teachers and students.

“We had focus groups of our educators, who definitively stated masks make learning more challenging for our students and education more challenging for our teachers,” he said. “On a social/emotional side, that has a huge impact. So much of education is relational. While we have been able to do education live and in-person and not on Zoom all the time, doing it safely, without masks, will make education all the better.”

Champion half-jokingly said that Medford schools’ staff and students had been ready for the optional mask rule to “take effect yesterday,” but he still stressed the importance of everyone keeping them on for now.

Others disagreed, such as Crystal Fox, a member of a Jackson County families Facebook page.

“If they can set a date to lift the mandates, they don’t need a date!” she wrote. “It’s time to end the mandates now! Today!”

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