PORTLAND, Ore. — The new school year is about a month away and school districts across Oregon and Washington are preparing for it.
The delta variant has thrown a big wrench in back to school plans for large and small districts. Some districts already had plans in place, then in late July the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority came out with an update requiring face coverings in all K-12 indoor school settings, regardless of vaccination status.
For the Umatilla School District in Eastern Oregon, that was a big change.
“We’ve had a real knack for just about every time we’ve taken a plan public, it almost seems like the very next day it changes,” said superintendent Heidi Sipe. The district had just announced masks would be optional.
Umatilla County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Oregon at about 40%, according to the CDC, and a high rate of COVID community transmission. The change to the masking policy was hard for some parents.
“They are of course frustrated that that change happened,” said Sipe.
Sipe said she’s advocating to restore local control of these kinds of decisions and is even meeting with the governor to discuss the issue.
“We still have our plan ready to go as soon as local control is restored,” said Sipe.
In Multnomah County, where the vaccination rate is 66% according to the CDC, Portland Public Schools (PPS) — the largest school district in Oregon — has no qualms with the new guidance.
“From the very beginning we have said we would be guided by public health experts, not politics, not the loudest expressed perspectives, not popular opinion,” said superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero.
PPS will start the school year on September 1 with students getting in-person instruction five days a week, masked up. Other measures will include three feet of physical distancing to the extent possible, increasing ventilation and air quality, as well as COVID-19 testing for symptomatic people.
As the school year approaches, Sipe understands there are passionate feelings from all sides.
“We just really need to remember that we’re models for kids and we need to behave appropriately,” Sipe said.
Vancouver Public Schools will also be requiring masks for all staff and students.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools, the second-largest district in Oregon, hopes to have a plan finalized later this week.