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School leaders ask state officials to drop mask requirement for practices, games

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - School leaders ask state officials to drop mask requirement for practices and games.

Crook County School District has once again leaned on state health and government officials to lift a mask requirement for indoor basketball practices and games.

Superintendent Sara Johnson and School Board Chair Scott Cooper sent a letter Wednesday to Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill and Peter Weber, executive director of the Oregon Schools Activities Association, again asking that the mask mandates be lifted for basketball.

"On Friday, May 21, just 30 minutes before Crook County High School hosted a wresting event, OSAA announced a last-minute change to the state's mask policy, and wrestlers were no longer required to wear masks during practices or competitions. OSAA deemed wearing a mask a 'choking hazard' and relaxed the mask requirement," the letter stated. "We agree with this decision and applaud OSAA for its leadership. We believe that a similar analysis should be applied to basketball, where the close contact and exposure is less significant than contact through wrestling. Basketball requires constant and vigorous exercise with frequent physical interactions."

Mask rules for basketball were thrust into the spotlight after Prineville freshman Savannah Lay collapsed in the locker room during a varsity tryout earlier this month. Struggling to breathe because of the mask, she retreated to the locker room to catch her breath, but she couldn't.

A fellow student found her in the locker room shortly before she collapsed. When coaches came to help, she was not breathing and they had trouble finding a pulse, so they called 911 and administered CPR. A police officer, who was first to arrive at the scene, gave Lay some NARCAN, which is typically used to treat opioid overdoses.

The health scare prompted her mother to contact Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, who wrote a letter to Gov. Kate Brown urging a change in mask policy. In addition, Johnson sent a letter to Gill requesting a change.

The state revised its mask policy but continued to require basketball players wear masks indoors during practices and competitions.

In the second letter to state officials, school leaders pointed out the district's positive history navigating the pandemic. Schools started the year with a hybrid model mixing in-person and online education, then transitioned to full-time in-person school at the end of January.

"Students are in the process of getting vaccinated and soon many of them will have immunity," the letter continued. "Given the high level of COVID immunity that comes with just a first dose of COVID vaccination and the benefits of herd immunity, our district believes we can allow our students to safely practice and play basketball without masks for the remainder of the school year."

School leaders went on to credit the district's partnership with the Crook County Health Department and the work of school nurses, principals, teachers, staff, parents and coaches in successfully managing COVID in local school buildings.

"We've kept cases to a minimum, avoided outbreaks, and successfully held several sports seasons without any major hiccups," the letter stated. "We strongly urge OHA (Oregon Health Authority), ODE and the OSAA to reconsider the necessity of the mask ban for basketball in light of lifting the ban for wrestling. The safety of our children is everything, but COVID is not the only health concern and safety risk facing our children. We invite you to balance risks between COVID transmission and a mask policy which seems, at least in the case of wrestling, to not be viewed as an essential protection."

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