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Schools pleased masks are coming off March 19

back to school during covid pandemic pile of books and medical mask
Medford, Ashland and Central Point agree optional masking is the goal but want clarity on rules

Rogue Valley school district leaders praised the state’s decision Thursday to lift the K-12 mask mandate March 19.

The Oregon Health Authority announced at the beginning of the month that it was giving schools until March 31 to prepare for unmasking, but the agency said it now felt comfortable making March 19 the new target date after “feedback from school districts around the state indicated that preparations for the transition could be completed earlier.”

“We are pleased with that announcement,” Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said during a virtual news conference.

He noted that March 19 falls on a Saturday and comes during his district’s spring break. Nevertheless, Champion said, Medford schools would be ready to make masks optional March 28.

There is “planning and conversations” involved in the rollout of the new policy, the Medford superintendent noted. After the news conference, he planned to have a meeting with staff to ask questions and “figure out exactly how things will roll out.”

“We don’t have all the details yet,” Champion said.

He noted that district officials still have questions for the state about how to enforce quarantines, isolations and test-to-stay under the upcoming guidelines.

On that front, Champion — and other superintendents the Mail Tribune contacted — expressed concern that if rules regarding quarantining were not changed, there could be a significant potential for a loss of instruction due to quarantine for unvaccinated students and loss of work for unvaccinated staff.

“We look forward to early next week, when we are told ODE and OHA will be rolling out all the details around the new rules,” Champion said.

Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education and deputy superintendent of public instruction, assured K-12 constituents Thursday that OHA and ODE are “partnering to develop practical updates to safety protocols for quarantine, contact tracing, and testing that meet the current conditions of the pandemic.”

“These guidelines will continue to support our North Star goal of providing in-person learning for every student, all day, every school day,” he said, “and will focus on specific supports for students, staff and families that may be at more risk from COVID-19 than others in the school population.”

Asked whether the new OHA guidance meant that if there was a new coronavirus surge school districts would still be able retain local control, Champion admitted he did not know. He hoped it would mean yes — and district officials would look at hospitalization rates to adjust prevention measures, if need be.

“We would love to be able to have the ability to set those standards for ourselves — that if we hit a certain level, certain things would happen,” he said. “I would encourage the state to think about this. We’re a large state, so having something that’s different in Southern Oregon really makes a lot of sense. We’ll see where that lands, but there certainly is precedent for the state moving in.”

Natalie Hurd, spokesperson for the Medford School District, noted school officials have a lot of experience with COVID-19 mitigation measures, but they’re hopeful they don’t have to go back to doing things the way they were done in early 2020, at the pandemic’s start.

“We’ve done it all, and I don’t think (the state) is going to ask us to do anything new. The concern, though, is that they might ask us to contact trace to the level we did in the early phases, which is a heavy burden on our staff,” she said.

Together, the OHA and Oregon Department of Education stressed that mask-wearing is “strongly recommended” even after March 19, particularly in schools, since those settings “bring together vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, as well as individuals who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.”

“I appreciate that OHA is saying what they’re saying,” Champion said.

But he insisted that the district has to think about “the big picture” of students, including how they’re doing socially and their ability to learn. The mask can have an impact on both, he said.

“Our job is to look at whole students, which looks like a lot more than just COVID-19,” said Champion.

State officials also noted employees and students may still want to wear a mask in school and they hoped others would be respectful of that choice.

“We’re very careful not to say that masks are forbidden,” Champion said. “We say, ‘masks are optional,’ and if someone wants to wear a KN95 mask all day, we make them available.”

While Medford’s superintendent chose to conduct a press conference, educational leaders in the valley’s smaller school districts issued statements about Thursday’s announcement by OHA.

Walt Davenport, who leads Central Point School District 6, made clear his team plans to pursue optional masking March 19.

He added, “even though the mask mandate will be lifted, it will be important for us to continue in our diligence to other health and safety protocols.”

If students and staff still continue to wear masks — as is recommended by OHA and ODE — then “we respect those personal decisions.”

“We want to thank our entire community for the tremendous effort and level of patience that has been evident during the past two years as we have navigated the pandemic and operation of our schools,” Davenport stated.

Ashland Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove called Gov. Kate Brown’s latest announcement on the indoor mask mandate “very encouraging news.”

Bogdanove noted the district is currently in the midst of conducting a survey of its families on the topic of masks in schools. That data will be considered “as we plan next steps” with regard to masking.

Dean MacInnis, communications supervisor for the Eagle Point School District, told the Mail Tribune that officials had nothing to say about the latest masking announcement beyond what Superintendent Andy Kovach stated weeks ago.

Over the next few weeks, EPSD9 will continue to have conversations with the local public health authority, OHA and ODE,” he stated at that time. “District 9 is currently exploring the details involved with adjusting our guidance to masks being optional when the requirements are lifted for schools. As more information becomes available about these changes, we will provide additional communication. Masks are still mandated indoors as of now.”

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