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Non-Medford schools cautious on optional masking

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune About a dozen people gathered Tuesday to protest mandated masks for students at Ashland High School.
Some smaller school districts aren’t ready to say what their policy on masking will be a day after the announcement from OHA

There was a steady stream of statements Tuesday from Rogue Valley school districts who needed time to chew over the major announcement issued the day before from the Oregon Health Authority that masks could be optional for students and staff come March 31.

Three Rivers, Ashland, Phoenix-Talent and Rogue Rivers school districts’ acknowledgments of the state’s planned removal of the masking requirement for indoor public places stands in contrast to the Medford School District, which arranged a news conference to answer reporters’ questions late Monday. At the same time, Central Point School District also said it would pursue an optional masking policy.

The responses from the smaller districts show that either they’ll push for an optional mask rule in consultation with their local health department or that more time is needed before a decision can be made.

“It appears that this is more complicated than just ‘masks come off on April 1,’” wrote Phil Long, superintendent of the Butte Falls School District.

To figure out a plan for the charter school, Long said, officials will “look at the full scope of the guidance and the options available for school districts” and discuss it with constituents.

“I am confident we will have our plan in place before spring break if not sooner and will communicate that to the families of our students,” he wrote.

Three Rivers Superintendent Dave Valenzuela expressed appreciation for the state allowing his district to have “local control” of COVID-19 policies and said he would welcome the opportunity to make masking in his schools optional.

“We are excited to see our students’ smiles again, and we will keep you posted with more information soon,” Valenzuela wrote.

He said, “There is a lot of planning ahead,” with Josephine County Public Health, to make optional masking a reality.

“Expect more detailed information as we approach spring break and as updates are released from the Oregon Department of Education,” Valenzuela wrote.

He urged Three Rivers families and students to use the coming weeks before March 31 to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Patrick Lee, superintendent for the Rogue River School District, told the Mail Tribune his district would not offer an official statement to families yet.

“It will take some time to work with administrators and the school board to plan out our direction. No real rush. Nothing changes until March 31 at the earliest,” Lee wrote.

His insistence on consulting the school board stands in contrast with Medford Superintendent Bret Champion, who said his district’s decision on whether masking is optional will rest with central administration, rather than the school board.

“I like to move in unison with my board and not make decisions like this without consulting them,” Lee wrote. “I also feel that since they are the ones who made a resolution for local control, they should have the opportunity to decide what that local control looks like. I’m sure they will seek some information and advice from me, but I view it as their decision to make for their community.”

Ashland Public Schools Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove issued a statement via his district’s online newsletter system. He reiterated the date local control would go into effect and that, until March 31, no COVID-19 protocols would be changed in his schools.

“The (d)istrict will determine how to navigate the local decision-making process and will keep families updated in the coming weeks,” Bogdanove wrote.

He said families would have a chance to weigh in on masks.

“Your input will be important as we consider what changes we may make to safety protocols in the future,” Bogdanove said. “Please look for an opportunity for direct feedback in the coming weeks.”

But in downtown Ashland Tuesday, some people weren’t waiting for the district’s ideal time and place to give that feedback. About a dozen or so people held up signs saying, “Free Faces For All” and “Unmask Oregon” in response to OHA’s announcement.

One of the mask protesters, Andre Nogues, said his only son used to attend Ashland Public School, until he placed the young man in boarding school in Indiana “to escape the madness” of masking-wearing.

Informed of Bogdanove’s message to families and his intent to incorporate them into the decision-making process, Nogues called it “lip service,” saying he’s been to many school board meetings and believes its members don’t listen to constituents on the subject of masking.

Still, Nogues admitted he doesn’t know whether Ashland Public Schools will decide whether students will have the option of mask-wearing. Whatever happens, Nogues said, the decision doesn’t give him much comfort, believing the state has overreached in its authority so much during the past two years.

Brent Barry, superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District, said his schools would start planning for an optional masking policy after gathering information.

“We know this will be welcome news to many and create anxiety for others, so we will do our best to provide clarity for our students, staff and community,” he wrote in an email.

Barry noted the state’s projection in the decrease in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 might allow for continued in-person learning with no disruptions and “springtime traditional events for our kids.”

Dean MacInnis, communications supervisor for the Eagle Point School District, said Tuesday that officials in his office were still not finished writing a letter to parents about masks. The district’s school board is set to meet Feb. 9 for a work session, in which the recent poll on masking filled out by parents and staff will be discussed.

Many of the valley’s school districts have mentioned their ongoing conversations with Jackson County Public Health as critical in determining whether schools can start optional masking in the spring.

Tanya Phillips, a spokesperson for the agency, said JCPH has standing meetings with all schools in Jackson County, and the OHA announcement would be discussed later this week.

In addition, she wrote, JCPH has internal meetings planned to “review and assess what the state has put forth and develop our recommendations. Further recommendation/guidance from OHA/ODE may still come at a later date.”

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