The announcement that Oregon officials will lift the state’s indoor mask mandate ahead of schedule on March 19 was welcome news for people who had pushed for an easing of masking requirements in schools — or at least, for local control so districts could make such decisions on their own.
To mask or not to mask has been an emotionally-charged issue for school districts throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
But as welcome as the end of the indoor mask mandate might be to some, Tom Rogozinski, superintendent for the Warrenton-Hammond School District in Clatsop County, isn’t sure families realize exactly what it might mean to give up masking within the context of the state’s broader COVID-19 guidelines.
“On it’s surface it was — for a lot of folks — like, ‘Wow! This is great news. This is great news … for schools and students,” Rogozinski said.
In his opinion, what wasn’t well-communicated is that other state protocols still stand.
Without universal masking in schools, other state safety protocols come back into play. For example, people exposed to a positive case, who wouldn’t have been considered a close contact when masking was in place, may find they are expected to quarantine when masking is gone.
This “could absolutely work in a direction of keeping more kids out of school,” Rogozinski said, “and absolutely work toward having the last quarter of the school year have the most days of school missed because of quarantine or whatnot even in a time when, hopefully, COVID is at its least powerful or least impactful in our community.”
School districts expect more clarity from the state on this issue next week.
The Warrenton-Hammond School District board has not decided exactly what the district will do when the indoor mask mandate ends — whether they will go the route of other local school districts and have masking be a personal choice. The district is still collecting community feedback through a survey.
The Knappa School District in Clatsop County and the Clatskanie School District in Columbia County both announced in letters to the community recently that they will move toward plans where, for the most part, masks will be optional.
There will be some exceptions. For instance, It is likely masks will continue to be required on buses by federal law.
In her letter, Clatskanie School District Superintendent Cathy Hurowitz emphasized that the safety of students and staff remains a top priority.
Though the community has differing opinions about masking, the district has no plans to follow a handful of other school districts around the state and defy Governor Kate Brown’s order before the mandate sunsets.
Hurowitz noted that dropping the mask mandate early puts the district at risk of losing federal funds that support key teaching positions and other resources for students.
For now, the district is getting ready for the end of masks.
“We are continuing to have our safety protocols in place,” Hurowitz said. “We are continuing to have that three feet of distance between kids. We are ready to do our contact tracing. We believe we are able to go mask optional and keep our staff and students safe.”