Oregon School District staff and students can expect to continue wearing masks into January, with the expectation that they will be phased out first for older grades and give younger students more time to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
After an hour-long debate during the Oregon School Board meeting on Monday, Nov. 22, where few members seemed to agree on what they felt was the best course of action, the board approved a plan that would allow students in grades 7-12 to be mask optional starting Monday, Jan. 10, and grades K-6 to be mask optional on Monday, Jan. 24.
Board member Kevin Mehring’s initial motion to go mask-optional for grades 7-12 starting Monday, Nov. 29, and younger grades on Jan. 10 failed by a vote of 5-2, with only Mehring and Tim LeBrun voting in favor. Mehring then motioned to have the split timeline for different grade levels. It narrowly passed, with Mehring, LeBrun, Troy Pankratz and board president Krista Flanagan voting in favor.
The plan hinges on Public Health Madison and Dane County’s masking rules. Earlier in November, the county had indicated it wasn’t planning to renew its mask mandate past the current one’s expiration date of Saturday, Nov. 27, but on Nov. 23 – the day after the school board meeting – the county renewed the mask mandate again, citing rising cases and the need to give younger people ages 5-11 more time to become fully vaccinated and older people more time to get booster shots.
An email to district families on Nov. 23 advised parents the district would continue its current COVID-19 strategies in response to the county’s order renewal.
The district will continue to “strongly recommend masks” after its mask mandate is lifted in January. If the board had decided to not adjust its COVID-19 policies at the Nov. 22 meeting, the district would still have had its mask mandate in place from early August, but would have needed to call a special meeting or waited until Monday, Dec. 13, to make a different decision.
District superintendent Leslie Bergstrom had presented two options of what administrators wanted the board to consider for unwinding the district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies, either an option for all students and staff to go mask optional starting Jan. 18, or the phased-in approach split between grades. Bergstrom cautioned that any decision would likely have an impact on both student attendance rates, as well as staff capacity to provide education both to students in-person and in quarantine.
“I think that this is something that we need to do, we need to be able to move forward and move to a mask encouraged environment,” she said. “It’s about when do we do it, so we’re minimizing the number of students who are missing school, and minimizing the number of staff who are already at their absolute maximum, and then we’re asking for more.”
The district has fairly high rates of vaccination across both its student and staff populations – 80% of Oregon Middle School students are vaccinated against COVID-19, as are 77% of Oregon High School students. Of its 450 professional staff that includes teachers and administrators, 99% of them have been vaccinated, and approximately 85% of hourly staff are as well.
Across the district, 137 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the year, which has resulted in 36 instances of quarantine for close contacts, Bergstrom said.
During their discussion, board members were fairly split on what they wanted to do – board members Mehring and LeBrun were in favor of going mask optional starting as early as Monday, Nov. 29, which was in line with Dane County not having announced the renewal of its mask mandate at the time.
“We’ve said many times we have extremely high vaccination rates in Oregon, let alone Dane County, much higher than other districts in other parts of the state, let alone country, that have been mask-optional for several weeks, some months,” Mehring said. “We’ve had a long time to get vaccinated – I actually did the math today, if you’re 16 years and older, you’ve had 231 days to get fully vaccinated … if you’re 12-18 years of age, you’ve had 193 days to get vaccinated.
“We’ve had ample time to get protected – parents should have the choice that they will deal with the potential quarantine situation if they decide to come to school without a mask,” he added.
Other board members, including Pankratz, Heather Garrison and Mary Lokuta, instead wanted to give the district time to evaluate the rate of COVID-19 transmission within its student population with time to adjust the timeline if it was needed. Board member Ahna Bizjak wanted to defer to transmission rates within the community as an indicator as to when to peel back the mitigation strategies, saying she would be more comfortable once the county’s COVID-19 transmission fell into the “low” or “moderate” levels as determined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metrics. As of Nov. 22, Dane County was considered to be in the “very high” transmission level.
“With infection rates today being worse than we were in August, I just don’t think now is the appropriate time to peel back any layers of those mitigation strategies,” Bizjak said. “I’m excited about the idea of removing some of these mitigation strategies, but I think we need to look at transmission rates.”