Oregon will require students and staff at K-12 schools to mask up against the coronavirus when school starts in September.
Amid concerns about the spread of the delta variant, Gov. Kate Brown directed the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education on Thursday to create a rule to require masks to be worn indoors at schools for the 2021-22 school year.
The governor’s decision puts the state in line with updated guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rule would undercut the Astoria School District. The school board voted 3-2 earlier this week to recommend, but not require, masks regardless of vaccination status. The school board wanted to leave the discretion on masks to families.
The delta variant, a more contagious version of COVID-19, is spreading in Oregon communities, Brown said in a statement.
“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,” the governor said. “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.”
Brown announced on Friday that state employees — regardless of vaccination status — are required to wear masks indoors at state agencies. The requirement also covers visitors and customers at state agencies.
Astoria Superintendent Craig Hoppes had been in support of allowing masks at schools to be optional. At a meeting on Monday, he urged the school board to make a decision on the matter so parents could begin to plan for the coming school year.
Some parents were concerned about their children returning to school if masks were going be required. But he knew other families might choose to continue with online education if masks were not mandatory.
“It just sort of flips the script now the other way,” Hoppes told The Astorian.
Now, he said, “The district will review the rules that come out for the requirement and if it’s required we’ll have to follow it.”
The school board was split in its decision about masks. Board members Grace Laman and Heidi Wintermute wanted masks to continue to be required, following the advice of health experts.
The rest of the board wanted to make masks optional for everyone, though masks would still be required on school buses, a federal rule. They also pointed to the science, noting the low instances of spread of the virus among younger children, the availability of vaccines for children 12 and older and the likelihood that vaccinations for even younger children could be coming soon.
With the governor’s announcement, the school board is back on familiar ground: Responding to ever-shifting recommendations and rules.
“With all things COVID, when you think you’ve got it figured out …” Jimmy Pearson, the school board chairman, said.
Pearson had voted in favor of letting masks be a choice, stating his confidence in the vaccines, a confidence he still maintains.
Masks will be back on the school board’s agenda at its Aug. 11 meeting, and will likely continue to be on meeting agendas going forward.
Other schools in Clatsop County had yet to finalize whether they would require masks after the state released updated guidelines last week. At the time, the state had recommended, but not required, masks in schools.