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509-J and Culver school district leaders want to maintain local decision making

Superintendents of two school districts in Jefferson County are disappointed with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's July 29 directive to create a rule requiring masks indoors for K-12 schools statewide for the 2021-22 school year.

The governor's announcement is a reversal from her stance in June, when she said all future decisions about COVID-19 protocols would be decided at the local level.

"Our district will do whatever it takes to retain the stance of local decision making and have masks be optional, honoring each family's wishes for their own student," wrote Culver School District Superintendent Stefanie Garber in a July 30 letter to families.

In an Aug. 2 letter to Jefferson County School District 509-J families and communities, Superintendent Jay Mathisen wrote, "I ask that the Governor reconsider the announcement made on July 29 and work with local leaders and teams to craft a more useful and comprehensively safe approach in this season to come."

The superintendents posted the letters in reaction to Brown's announcement to direct the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education to create the new mask requirement, which she noted is in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recently updated guidance and based on the latest science on the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant.

"The science and data are clear: the delta variant is in our communities, and it is more contagious," said Brown in a press release. "My priority is to ensure our kids are able to safely return to full-time in-person learning this fall, five days per week and with minimal disruptions. With many children still ineligible to be vaccinated, masks are an effective way to help keep our kids safe in the classroom, the learning environment we know serves them best."

In her letter to Culver families, Garber said, "We believe it is our district's role to consider the full impact on safety, learning and social development that masks have on children."

During a July 29 board meeting, Garber said Culver School District officials said that mask mandates medically, physically and psychologically harm children. They believe masks are a visual form of discrimination and inequality, and they saw negative psychological effects of masks and communication on campus.

Garber pointed to an excellent partnership with the Jefferson County Health Department and that there was not a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.

"Every decision needs to be given to families, and we trust that they determine what they feel is best for their child, both for masks and vaccines," Garber wrote. "I will not tolerate any mandate that risks the safety, learning or social development of our students."

In his letter to 509-J families and communities, Mathisen pointed to the sense of shared disappointment and frustration with the announcement that rescinds local control over matters related to educating children.

"I ask that the rule-making process create a flexible system of measures that allows for local communities to be recognized as unique and valued as such," Mathisen wrote.

He pointed out that a very small number of COVID-19 cases were attributed to school-based spread and that schools have a wide assortment of tools available to assist in mitigating the impacts of the pandemic.

"Requiring masks of all adults and students at this point is an over-reach that is not necessary or mindful of the role and choice of families, or the needs of young people that are too often ignored in this ongoing context," Mathisen wrote.

He noted that when families, schools and local health authorities have the ability to work together, considering local needs and contexts, communities and young people in them are best served.

"Mandating masks for all in all school settings is a blunt instrument that misses the mark, inflicts damage, and discounts collective wisdom and capacity in our local settings across our state," Mathisen said.

In neighboring Crook County School District, Superintendent Sara Johnson has stated that her district will also push for local control and decision-making regarding masks and COVID-19 protocols in Crook County schools.

Redmond School District leaders are reviewing Oregon Health Authority's rule.

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