End of mandatory masking brings relief along with stress and liability to school leaders

Superintendents say they are considering whether making masks optional in school is worth considering

By: - February 9, 2022 6:00 am

Jon Zwemke, superintendent of schools in the coastal town of Reedsport, got just a few hours’ notice that statewide mask mandates would be over for his students and staff by the end of March.

On Monday, Feb. 7, the Oregon Health Authority announced it would be up to district leaders to decide what they wanted to do after March 31. 

“That allowed me to put together a Facebook post and a website statement to say ‘We’ll have better communication by Friday,’” Zwemke said.

He and other superintendents across the state will now have to decide how to keep students safe if they forgo one of the key Covid prevention protocols – while avoiding backlash from parents and staff. 

Zwemke said he gets the strong sense that people in his community are tired of masks and they’ll welcome the opportunity to make them an option rather than a requirement. 

Still, “In my seat it’s a lot easier when we’re told to do it in a certain way,” he said.

His board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, Feb. 9, to discuss options and he suspects board members will decide to make masks optional after March 31.

Districts that choose to make masks optional will have to come up with new plans to avoid an outbreak of the virus among students while also doing whatever they can to keep students in school.

They’ll no longer have access to the test-to-stay program that had allowed unvaccinated students to stay in school even after an exposure as long as they test negative three to five days later. Without a mask requirement in schools, unvaccinated students will need to quarantine immediately after an exposure, according to the new guidance from the state Health Authority.

“Universal masking is a key measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In its absence, schools should anticipate significant increases in workload from contact tracing and notification,” warned Colt Gill, director of the state Education Department, in a note to school officials. 

The agency is recommending that schools continue masking mandates after March 31.

The Capital Chronicle emailed 154 school superintendents on Feb. 8 about the new masking rules, and heard back from 37 by mid-afternoon. Most expressed a level of relief that a future where students didn’t have to be masked was nearing, while some expressed concerns that maintaining student health would now be an even greater responsibility for them than before. 

Of the superintendents that responded to questions, 25 superintendents said they’d wait to take the matter to their school boards and use the next seven weeks to gather more feedback from parents, students, staff, school employee unions and local health officials  before recommending whether to make masks optional or keep them mandatory.

Among those taking that approach are the state’s two biggest districts, Portland Public Schools and Salem-Keizer. 

Among the responses, eight district superintendents said they would be making masks optional for students and staff after March 31. 

Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, wrote in an email that, “While the science is clear that wearing masks indoors helps reduce the transmission of Covid-19, opinions on mandatory masks in schools vary greatly from community to community and from school to school…It will be more important than ever for district leaders throughout the state to meaningfully engage with educators and with the communities they serve.”

Schools should consult with their local health authorities, school nurses, risk managers, attorneys and any other applicable stakeholders regarding safety and liability concerns.

– Mary Paulson, depty director at the Oregon School Boards Association

Mary Paulson, deputy director at the Oregon School Boards Association, said in an email that the association strongly supports local control, but members will be advised to carefully consider the liabilities that come with making masks optional.

The association helped to get House Bill 4402 passed in 2020 which provided school districts and charter schools with limited protection for Covid-related claims.

But for schools to be protected against such claims, they must comply with all Covid-19 emergency rules, including guidance from the state Education Department and Health Authority. 

“Schools should consult with their local health authorities, school nurses, risk managers, attorneys and any other applicable stakeholders regarding safety and liability concerns,” Paulson wrote.

In Umatilla, Superintendent Heidi Sipe said they’re prepared to go mask optional after March 31.

The district had already prepared such a policy last August, right before the 2021-22 school year started and the statewide indoor mask mandate was applied to everyone 5 years and older in schools.

“We did a release and made a video for parents all about how mask optional would work in our district,” she said, “then the statewide mask mandate came out the next day.”

The district’s policy for optional masking includes new seating protocols in classes. Students who are masked sit together and students who are unmasked sit together. If the teacher leading a class chooses to be unmasked, then unmasked students sit to the front and masked students sit to the back. If the teacher chooses to be masked, then masked students sit to the front. 

If a student decides not to wear a mask one day, then to wear a mask the next, they must still sit with the maskless students for a week until they can sit with the masked students. Sipe said every classroom in the district has a portable, medical-grade air purifier that will be set between the two groups of students. 

She said these steps are intended to ensure masked students won’t have to quarantine if an outbreak occurs in a class, while unmasked students will. 

Sipe said in many of the after-school sports where masks have been optional, students have started wearing them again because they don’t want to be quarantined if there’s an exposure.

“They understand the risks and they’re really pretty savvy about deciding what’s best for them, especially the high schoolers,” she said.

Sipe said if school officials see a spike in cases, they’ll ask people to wear masks again for a time. For now, she updates the district site weekly with the number of student cases in each grade level and school.

“That gives parents the opportunity to make decisions,” she said, about whether to send their kids to school, or to send them with a mask, given case numbers.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.