Masks in schools have been a contentious subject, often leading to school board meeting disruptions and harassment. On Feb. 28, Oregon state leaders lifted mask mandates, leaving mandate policies up to local government bodies — and open to potential controversy. Days after, local Lane County school districts have decided to make masks optional, citing low COVID cases.
Bethel School District announced its indoor mask policy change via a March 1 email to staff and families, says spokesperson Alisha Dodds. Starting March 12, the school district will have masks be optional for students and staff in most district settings.
The decision was made based on data from Lane County Public Health and the Oregon Health Authority, according to Dodds. The data suggests COVID-19 infection cases and hospitalizations will decline to pre-Omicron levels by early March, and Bethel already has the lowest positive cases of COVID-19 among staff and students since October.
In the information sent to families and staff, the Bethel School District emphasized it will not tolerate any form of mask-related ridicule or bullying.
Springfield School District already had plans to make masks optional when Oregon was going to lift its mask mandate on March 19. The district announced in a March 2 email to families and staff that it would move up the date to adhere to the state’s change. Masks are recommended — but not required — for everyone in the school district, including transportation.
Eugene School District 4J made its decision at a March 2 board meeting. 4J Chief of Staff Kerry Delf offered three options: make masks optional as soon as possible, delay until it’s safe or wait until the end of the school year. She said classified staff who have offered input — which includes custodial and food service workers — wanted the first option. But there are still some staff and families who want the indoor mask mandate to remain, she said.
Delf said that Interim Superintendent Cydney Vandercar, who wasn’t at the meeting due to a family emergency, wanted to make masks optional beginning March 14. All board members said they supported lifting the mask mandates. The majority of board members said they wanted masks to remain while students are on buses, but the board will discuss that further at a March 9 regular meeting.
In higher education, on March 3, the University of Oregon announced that masks would be welcome but optional starting March 19, when spring break begins. The UO said in the email to students and faculty that it would still provide KN95 masks, COVID–19 testing and the Corona Corps care team support for students.
Lane Community College has not responded to Eugene Weekly about its plans for the mask mandate or made any announcement yet.
Although the West Coast’s indoor mask mandate is ending March 12, the CDC says that masks should still be considered for use by specific populations, such as older people, folks with medical conditions and those who are pregnant.