School starts in two weeks, and leading up to the first day, masks remain a focus.
Late last month, Gov. Kate Brown issued a mandate requiring masks be worn in public schools. The decision came on the heels of a nationwide COVID surge spurred by the delta variant. Another mandate later followed that requires masks at all public indoor locations.
Frustrations about the reverse course boiled over during a recent Crook County School District Board meeting. Parents passionately opposed the new requirements, hoping that local educators would defy the state order.
That will not happen, but that doesn't mean that school district leadership isn't searching for a way for kids to go to Crook County schools mask-free. In a recently emailed statement, Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson assured parents that their concerns had been heard. But she went on to stress that she has heard from local doctors, hospital officials and other parents "who are concerned for the health and safety of both students and staff."
"While I still believe in local control and decision-making, these state mandates present us with significant additional hurdles as we look forward to the start of the new school year," she said.
"I'm working with our attorneys and the school board to sift through the mask enforcement guidance that the Oregon Department of Education released, following the school board meeting."
Johnson pointed out that the Oregon Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) "have highlighted and elevated the threat of fines and penalties for non-compliance with the mandate."
"It is clear the outcomes of breaching the mandate could bring harm to the district and district employees and board members personally," she said.
Local school leaders plan to provide more information to families as they digest all of the new information, but meanwhile they are asking for help from local families and community members.
"We're forming a 25-person advisory committee to give advice and suggestions to the superintendent during the 2021-22 school year," Johnson said.
Amid these efforts at the local level, Brown is appealing to school districts throughout the state to adhere to the new mandates. In an open letter to superintendents, school board members and education leaders, she noted that some districts have "expressed a willingness to defy, ignore and undermine school mask requirements," and that some school boards have passed or are considering formal resolutions to that effect.
"The frustrating reality is that the virus has mutated, and so we must again adapt our strategies to protect Oregon's kids," Brown said. "The spread of the highly contagious delta variant has changed everything. Cases and hospitalizations are at all-time highs in Oregon. Children are now becoming severely ill and requiring hospitalization in higher numbers."
The governor went on to say that "by again taking simple and effective precautions, we can still return our children to classrooms full-time this fall."
"Flouting mask requirements will put everything we have worked towards in the last year at risk," she said.
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