Oregon Statewide Mask Policy Lets School Districts Decide

Clarion photo Anna Suydam
Seniors Liem Friel, and Aiden Mackie walking down the hallways at Cleveland following mask wearing protocol.

After almost a year of people attending in-person school, some school policies for Portland Public schools will be changed on March 1 by PPS due to declining case rates in Oregon. Furthermore, indoor state mask mandates are being released for certain districts in Oregon by March 19, letting schools decide their mask policies on a district-by-district basis.

On Jan. 28, the Oregon Health Authority adopted new permanent rules regarding mask use in schools to replace the temporary mandates that were set to expire the same day. However, on Feb. 7, a new decision was made: to lift the statewide indoor mask mandate by March 31, in light of a declining case rate. Weeks afterwards, this end date was updated to March 19.
However, there are some caveats. Mask-optional school districts will no longer be able to use test-to-stay programs for unvaccinated teachers, meaning that, if exposed to Covid-19, these teachers will be quarantined for several days no matter what. They will also return to the general exposure definition of “having been within six feet of a confirmed or presumptive Covid-19 case for 15 minutes or more within one day,” and contact tracing will be required.
Aside from that, many districts in Oregon may soon be choosing to leave the decision of wearing masks to individuals. And although the choice is now up to schools, Oregon Health Authority still “strongly encourages” that districts don’t remove their mandates just yet.
Some Oregon districts have already announced that they intend to move forward in making masks optional when the statewide mandate ends. As of Feb. 25, this includes the school districts of Sherwood, Medford, Silver Falls, Newberg, Canby, Yamhill-Carlton, and Gresham-Barlow. Many others, like Beaverton, Salem-Keizer, and Hillsboro, are still weighing their options. Due to student and family protests, some schools are even deciding to drop the mandate before March 19, which they otherwise have no way of enforcing.

On February 18, Portland Public Schools emailed parents and families about changes to several school policies that include changes to the mask mandates and Covid restrictions. The policies are planned to be executed March 1 of this year.
First, when outdoors, masking will no longer be mandatory and will be optional when on school property, although masks will still be required while inside the building. Next, students will be allowed to resume certain in-person activities again, such as school dances and events. Third, the Civic Use of Building permits, which allows school buildings to be used by certain community groups and individuals during non-school hours, will approve indoor use of school buildings for these groups and individuals. Finally, overnight field trips for classes will be permitted again. According to PPS, these changes are aligned with the statewide Ready School Safe Learner’s guidelines for the school year of 2021-22 (last updated Feb. 9).
As of yet, Portland Public Schools haven’t made any statements about changes in indoor mask policy come March 19.
Importantly, the district’s contract with the Portland Association of Teachers, the teachers’ union, includes the requirement that students wear masks at all times while in classrooms. The contract runs for the entire 2021-22 school year, so if PPS were to change this policy before then, the district and the union would have to renegotiate the agreement. The union plans to survey its members about this policy as well, ensuring that any changes are made with the voices of its members behind them.
In their decision-making process, PPS is also looking at the Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework (RSSL), which is the Oregon Department of Education’s set of guidelines for public schools. According to KATU News, PPS expects these guidelines to shift as mask policies around the state prepare to change.

Oregon’s policy changes follow that of other states trying to signal a “return to normal” as their case rates fall to pre-Omicron levels. In early February, Delaware and New Jersey were two states who kicked off a trend as they dropped requirements for masks at the state level.
As of now, 11 states have plans to end mask mandates in some capacity within the next few weeks. Several, including Washington, California, and New York, are continuing to require them in schools, but are loosening restrictions in other settings. Washington is only ending its outdoor mandate at the moment, with the indoor one still in place. According to ABC News, these policy updates all come at the end of the Omicron surge of cases and hospitalizations, in order to not risk overwhelming healthcare systems, but despite this timing, the CDC continues to strongly recommend that individuals wear well-fitting masks in public settings, including schools.

Oregon’s timing for their change in mask policy is based on the predicted case rate in the coming weeks. The case spike from Omicron has been falling for weeks, and OHSU predicted in early February that there would be “400 or fewer” hospitalizations from Covid-19 by late March, the official point at which health officials will try to ease requirements safely.
“We should see COVID-19 hospitalizations drop by the end of March because so many Oregonians are wearing masks and taking other steps to protect themselves and each other, such as getting a booster shot or vaccinating their children. At that point, it will be safer to lift mask requirements,” Dr. Dean Sidelinger, health officer and state epidemiologist, said in a statement regarding OHSU’s projection.
Several weeks later, the projection was updated to reflect the current pattern of cases, saying that requirements could be eased mid-March.