Students and staff in the Astoria School District will not have to wear masks to protect against the coronavirus when they return to school in September regardless of their vaccination status.

The school board voted 3-2 Monday night to leave the choice of masking up to families. Health screenings, frequent hand-washing and other basic pandemic protocols will remain in place. Students and staff will have to wear masks while on school buses, a federal requirement.

Astoria High School

A divided Astoria school board voted to give families the choice on masks when school begins in the fall.

School districts across Clatsop County are still absorbing new reopening guidelines released by the state last week, but some are already planning to follow a similar path as Astoria. While the state highly recommended mask-wearing indoors, the decision was left to local school districts.

Alarmed by the spread of the delta variant, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended that teachers, staff and students of K-12 schools wear masks, even if they are vaccinated, which could increase pressure on school leaders.

In making their decision, Astoria School District leaders pointed to the fact that vaccines against the virus have been available to adults and older children for months now, and that there are fewer cases and lower instances of spread of the virus among younger children.

Superintendent Craig Hoppes told the school board he preferred an option that recommended masking but did not require it.

“I’ve felt like for the past year and a half we’ve been telling parents what they have to do and not given them any options,” he said.

Jeanette Sampson, a school board member, was firm in her belief that masks needed to be a choice. The pandemic has gone on for more than a year and the district has taken a number of measures to inform parents and make things as safe as possible, she said.

“We’ve done what we can,” she said.

Board member Jenna Rickenbach agreed. She clarified that she is not against vaccination, but every family is different and some people may not be able, medically, to receive a vaccine. In the meantime, she worried about how masks might hamper learning for younger children.

“I feel like parents are being vigilant and we can put mask ownership on parents and not the five of us,” she said, referring to the school board. “We need parents to take ownership.”

Board members Grace Laman and Heidi Wintermute were against the decision, noting that health experts continue to recommend wearing masks. Laman was also concerned about students who might be immunocompromised but who would benefit from a return to in-person school. These students may have to stay home if masking protocols are not in place, she said.

The school district plans to continue offering an online school option.

In a statement, Melissa Grothe, a fourth grade teacher and president of the Astoria Education Association, the teachers union, said in a statement to The Astorian that she hoped as many people as possible received vaccinations.

“And that those that are unable, or choose not to vaccinate, will practice other safety measures in order to protect the health and safety of all our staff and students,” she said.

The Jewell and Knappa school districts are in the process of finalizing their return-to-school protocols. Jewell School will have masks available for students on campus, but masks will not be required except on school buses.

The Warrenton-Hammond School District is waiting on the results of a survey sent out to families that asks for feedback on masking and social distancing options.

Students and staff will likely still need to follow some pandemic protocols. Frequent hand-washing and wellness checks are easy to implement and don’t disrupt the daily schedules at school buildings, Superintendent Tom Rogozinski wrote in a letter to the community. Masks and social distancing are trickier, he said.

It’s often a political discussion, Rickenbach said Monday.

Implied in all of the different district discussions and usually stated in their preliminary plans is the understanding that everything could change by the time the school year actually begins in September.

As Astoria’s district leaders noted Monday: They have local control over decisions like masking — for now.

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.