PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) released new guidelines on masks, quarantine and COVID-19 testing protocols in K-12 schools on Tuesday. The updated framework comes after Oregon health officials announced the state will lift its mask requirements for indoor public spaces and schools on March 12, citing declining case numbers along with hospitalizations projected to fall below pre-omicron levels.
"This is the time we feel we can safely make these changes without increasing the physical risk and spread of COVID,” said Oregon Health Officer and Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger.
Here's a look at the ODE's recommendations for K-12 schools, effective March 12.
In a 26-page document, ODE said it strongly advises the use of masks in schools to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and time lost learning due to illness, but that the decision to require masks after March 12 will be up to school districts and local public health authorities. Schools may also choose to require that students wear masks on buses or vans. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) ended its mask mandate for public and private school buses on Feb. 25.
ODE said individual students, teachers and staff have the option to choose to wear masks based on their COVID-19 risk levels.
"We're working really hard with our schools to ensure a safe and respectful environment for students and staff to learn together regardless of their individual choices to wear a mask or not," said ODE Director Colt Gill during a joint news conference with the Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday.
Some districts, including Portland Public Schools, have told KGW they are still in the process of deciding whether to continue to wear masks. A spokesperson for the Beaverton School District said she expects a decision to come early next week. In a letter to the Parkrose School District community, superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said the school board plans to make a decision on masks during a meeting on March 7.
Washington County Public Health and Clackamas County Public Health have said there are no current plans to recommend county-wide mask mandates after the state mandate is lifted.
ODE is advising all K-12 schools to implement COVID-19 testing through two opt-in programs: diagnostic testing and screening testing.
Students and staff who were exposed to COVID-19 or who have symptoms are encouraged to take part in diagnostic testing.
ODE said screening testing is for unvaccinated teachers, staff and students without symptoms who may have been exposed to COVID-19. Staff need to sign up or opt-in to the weekly screening program.
Students and staff can continue to attend school regardless of their participation in testing.
"Testing all exposed individuals in a population with high levels of immunity is neither feasible or needed," said Sidelinger.
Quarantine and contact tracing
Starting March 12, Oregon will pause contact tracing and quarantine protocols for the public including in K-12 settings.
Instead, ODE is encouraging schools to follow a "cohorting" strategy, meaning that students stay within the same groups for much of the school day. ODE said cohorting exposure notifications will limit the disruption to learning because it limits the number of exposed people when a COVID-19 case is identified in a school.
ODE said people who test positive for COVID-19 should isolate for five days, then can stop isolating if they are fever-free for 24 hours. They are also asked to wear a mask around others at home and in public for an additional five days after the end of isolation.