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State warns that ditching indoor masking in schools will end test-to-stay program

PMG FILE PHOTO: HOLLY SCHOLZ - A student in Culver wears a mask at school. Oregon announced its indoor mask mandate will end no later than March 31, but that doesn't guarantee schools will do away with masks.An announcement Monday, Feb. 7 that the state will lift its indoor mask mandate by the end of March doesn't guarantee schools will be maskless.

The Oregon Department of Education noted the decision about whether to stop requiring masks in schools ultimately rests with school districts and local health departments. That could make for a varied landscape of rules across the state.

"As of March 31, the decision to require universal masking in school settings will rest with decision makers in school districts, charter schools, private schools, and local public health authorities," Colt Gill, director of ODE, wrote to school leaders Monday. "The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OHA and ODE continue to strongly advise the use of face coverings in schools in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and minimize the impact of quarantine through the school year."

In some districts, union contracts hinge on students wearing masks.

At Portland Public Schools, the district's contract with its teaches union, Portland Association of Teachers, stipulates that students wear masks at all times in the classroom. Any changes to those rules would require the district to revisit its contract with the union.

"That agreement is for the entire 2021-22 school year," Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, stated in a message to educators. "Among other mitigations, our agreement states that students are required to wear masks."

The letter to Portland teachers noted that the union plans to survey its members, to ensure any changes made are driven by educators.

Portland Public Schools has yet to announce how or if it will change its guidelines.

"We are aware of OHA's announcement, but have not made any decisions yet on what this will mean for Portland Public Schools. We expect to review the OHA rule, seek guidance from our public health experts, and look forward to collaborating with Multnomah's Health Department to determine what is best for our local community," said Jonathan Garcia, chief of staff for PPS.

Regardless of what rules are in place at schools or other public places, masks still need to be worn on school buses and other public transit, due to a federal rule still in place.

State says in-person learning could be impacted

The state said districts that do opt to make masks optional should be aware of the implications.

"In the absence of universal masking, schools will not be able to use the Test to Stay Protocol to allow students and staff to attend school during a quarantine period," Gill noted in his letter to school districts. The test to stay program, which was rolled out in November, allows unvaccinated students and staff who are ordered to quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure to return to school before the full quarantine period, if they test negative. That program is only allowed in schools where everyone wears a mask.

Doing away with a mask requirement could also mean more unvaccinated students and staff in quarantine. The state had recently eased up on its definition of what counts as an exposure to COVID-19, but ODE noted schools must "return to using the general exposure definition" meaning anyone who was within six feet of another person who tests positive or is presumed positive for 15 minutes or more will need to quarantine at home unless vaccinated.

"This will likely result in more days out of school for unvaccinated students and staff, and more classroom and school closures due to staffing constraints," ODE's letter noted.

Some students said regardless of whether the rules change, they'll continue wearing a mask to school.

"Do I like wearing masks? No but at the same time I want us to be safe for as long as we can because I don't want a repeat of early 2020!" Korae Williams, a junior at David Douglas High School said.

In Gresham, high school sophomore Maya Franzen said she'll continue wearing her mask, too. "I think I will keep wearing a mask since we almost shut down because of the new variant," Franzen said. "I think it'll be better to keep masks on for the time being."

When asked whether she's concerned about a higher risk of contracting the virus at school if masks are no longer required, Franzen said she's not worried about getting sick, but doesn't want to bring the virus home to her older family members.

Other students aren't worried.

"Covid cases aren't as many anymore and the omicron variant isn't spreading as much, so I think we would be okay without masks in a few more months," Aurora Tirado, a junior at David Douglas High, said.

Anti-mask protests target suburban schools

The same week the state announced the forthcoming end of public mask mandates, Oregon suburbs saw a wave of anti-mask protests targeting schools.

In Gresham, Silverton, Salem, Scappoose and Sherwood, parents and students rallied outside school campuses with signs, before students attempted to enter school buildings without masks.

At Sherwood High School, school staff blocked the entrance, offering masks to students who tried to enter, but a large group of students eventually pushed past school staff, filling up an entryway inside the building.

The commotion caused school officials to implement heightened campus security the next day, and limit parent access to school grounds. "This morning, what happened at the high school was not peaceful, was not safe for students or staff, and disrupted the operations of the school," said Sherwood Superintendent Heather Cordie in a letter to the community.

In Gresham, some students left class Thursday morning as part of a coordinated student walkout and protest over mask mandates.

Gresham Barlow High School student Zander Baker helped organized the walkout and protest.

"I got students all together and told them that we are going to be here at this time," Baker told Pamplin Media Group. "In the end, this isn't only about masks. We want to be heard and listened to by our representatives and our school."

Nardin Ishak and Kim Cortes-Martinez contributed to this story.

Courtney Vaughn
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