Oregon High School

Oregon School District administrators are recommending the district keep its mask mandate until transmission drops back to moderate transmission, as cases diagnosed in students and staff increased over winter break.

During the Oregon School Board’s Monday, Jan. 10, meeting, district superintendent Leslie Bergstrom proposed waiting to peel back mitigation strategies such as universal masking until local data from around the district’s attendance area and the county reaches “medium” transmission for a minimum of seven days. Doing so will allow the district to remove measures while still focusing on keeping students attending in-person school and creating more stability with teacher and staff availability, she said.

The board ultimately approved a plan that would extend the district’s mask mandate into March, with a stipulation that it would only move to mask-optional if cases were in the moderate category, by a vote of 4-3, with board members Kevin Mehring, Tim LeBrun and Heather Garrison voting against. The board took action to extend the district’s mask mandate until March 7 for middle and high school students and March 28 for younger students, as the state Supreme Court plans to take up a lawsuit against Public Health Madison and Dane County over the renewal of its mask mandate orders. Should the mask mandate be eliminated by the Supreme Court, board president Krista Flanagan explained, the board had a policy on the books that stated older students could be mask-optional as of Jan. 10.

Currently, the state Department of Health Services’ website lists “moderate” transmission as between 10 and 49 newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases in the past seven days. For the greater Oregon area, that would mean the district’s attendance area would need to have less than 10 cases total in a single week – a rate of transmission last seen in July 2021, just as cases of Delta started to rise.

“This is different – we haven’t spoken about a designation or a category in the past,” Bergstrom said. “So this is something to consider, but is slightly more concrete than what we have used as an indicator in the past.”

Previous attempts at loosening COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the past few months have failed, as plans to go mask-optional starting in January were up-ended by Public Health Madison and Dane County the day after they were approved by the school board. At the beginning of November, the health agency had signaled it wasn’t planning to renew its mask mandate after it expired on Nov. 27, but significant increases in confirmed case loads due to the Omicron variant prompted them to reconsider and extend the mask order out twice since.

Now, even with the mask mandate still in place –and extended into February – and high vaccination rates among residents, Dane County is still seeing record-breaking counts of daily diagnosed COVID-19 cases, with the latest record of 2,115 being set on Friday, Jan. 7. Case counts are nearly 80% higher than they were two weeks ago and hospitalizations have surpassed last winter’s peak, according to the Public Health Madison and Dane County dashboard, and December 2021 was the fourth-deadliest month out of the last two years of the pandemic in Dane County, where 27 people died.

Within the district’s population, three out of every 10 cases identified in its students occurred over winter break, with 170 new cases in the last week out of the 570 confirmed, Bergstrom said. The increase in cases isn’t the result of transmission during in-person schooling, but instead outside activities that occurred over winter break that students and staff participated in, Bergstrom added.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of absent children, and there are a lot of absent staff members,” she said. “Winter break, for both students and staff, led to a really big increase, because it was winter break, and we were able for the first time for many of us to see family members … and it led to some increased case numbers.”

Board member Kevin Mehring asked fellow board member Troy Pankratz, who proposed the plan to allow for mask-optional starting in March pending numbers being in the right area, if he was taking into consideration instances of severe illness or death, if he was just taking case counts as the main metric.

“When students test positive with COVID-19, they need to quarantine, and I want to keep kids in school,” Pankratz said, agreeing with Mehring’s assumption. 

Board member Mary Lokuta said that if the board and the district’s goal really is to keep students doing in-person learning, then she felt it was unreasonable to peel back the masking requirement with how the quarantine requirements change for mask-optional school environments.

“I’m not sure we need to set dates, because you’re throwing darts at a dart board, and you’re blindfolded,” she said. “I think we really need to consider when our staffing levels are stable … I’d hate for us to push forward and make it worse.”

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