Oregon schools implement universal mask mandate

Kelly J. Kaczala

        At an August 17 Oregon School board meeting, Superintendent Hal Gregory said he was considering implementing a universal mask mandate as new COVID-19 cases in the state continued to rise.
        “Every day there is a more intense message about requests by the state and local officials for school districts to implement a mask requirement. It’s building heavy and building hard,” said Gregory.
        “I could see a mask mandate coming this week even,” he added. “There’s some additional information I’m hoping to gather tomorrow to make a different recommendation if we want to go there. I’m just telling you, it looks like it’s heading that way pretty fast and pretty furious. I’m not going to predict what other school districts intend to do. But I’ll have more information on that tomorrow.”
        The next day, August 18, Gregory sent out a notice to the community about requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks while in the school buildings just five days before students returned to school from summer recess.
        “The Oregon City Schools will be implementing an indoor universal mask requirement for all students in grades Pre-K through 12, all staff, and all visitors, regardless of vaccination status, in our buildings during school hours and after hours,” announced Gregory.
        “This initial requirement will last through September 24, 2021. We will re-evaluate prior to September 24 to determine if this mask requirement needs to continue or not. Students will not need to wear masks while eating lunch. Staff will not need to wear masks while alone in classrooms or offices,” he said.
Rising COVID
        The reason for the mask mandate, he said, was due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases among young people.
        “We are attempting to decrease the number of students that could be exposed and quarantined when exposed to an individual who is COVID-19 positive. If students are wearing a mask, and are three feet or more away from the exposed individual, they do not need to be quarantined. The mask requirement greatly reduces the chances we have to send healthy kids home from school.”
        The decision, he said, is based on information acquired in the past few days.
        “We do not want our students to miss school, inconvenience families, and overlook our staff as happened the last school year. We want our students in school, five days a week, all year. Having everyone wear a mask helps ensure this will happen and still allows for the vast majority of student learning activities to occur uninterrupted. The data is prompting this decision. The governor and health experts are begging school districts to, at least, implement universal masking initially as this wave of COVID-19 develops to minimize the potential local impact.”
        Universal masking will apply when attending indoor sporting events and activities. Universal masking is not required while attending outdoor extracurricular activities and events, but is strongly encouraged and recommended.
        “These types of decisions are not easy and are often polarizing,” said Gregory. “Our staff and community have successfully navigated this before and we will do it again if we stick together. I am hopeful this is not a long-term requirement.”
        On August 19, Gregory explained in an email to families about the timing of the mandate.
        “I have received several questions today about the timing of the announcement. The easiest way to explain is this: I was holding out hope the COVID-19 numbers and trends were not going to get worse, but they did. All the medical predictions are saying youth cases are rising.”
        In a Zoom meeting with the health department on August 19, Gregory said he learned that Lucas County on that day had 128 cases per 100,000, which is up from July. Youth cases made up 18 percent of the total cases in Lucas County. There had been an increase in youth cases in a rolling 14-day average from 17 cases to 115 cases, an 85 percent increase in just two weeks. Total cases of COVID-19 were up from 300 in July to 800 in August, a “rapid jump.”
        “Whether you support the use of masks or not, my job is to run a school district and educate students. Wearing masks give us the best chance to do that right now,” he said.
        Arik Bench, who planned on holding a protest with other parents opposed to the mask mandate on Friday, August 27, in front of Clay High School, said he is against wearing masks because it’s a violation of his rights.
        “I’m not protesting for political reasons. My wife and I are not vaccinated. We believe in the right to choose,” said Bench, who has three children in the district. “The mask mandate is an infringement on our rights. I believe it should be an option. If your kid wants to go to school wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine. I have no issue with that. If my kids choose not to, that’s also a perfectly fine choice. I don’t think the schools have a right to impose this on people. I’m normally a quiet person who doesn’t say much, but think things have gone a little bit too far.”
        Bench said he knows of other parents in the district who are also opposed to the mandate.
        “There are a lot of parents who are not happy,” he said. “There are parents on the other side who want kids masked up in school. We all are allowed to have our views. But some of us want to protest and fight back. We masked up last year, did everything everyone told us to do, and were told everything would be fine in the spring. Then spring comes and we got a new variant. Are we just going to go through the same paces over and over again? I choose to live free and live my life.”


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