MEDFORD, Ore. — When the Oregon Department of Education released its guidance for the coming school year at the end June, it left the decision to require face coverings up to individual districts and schools. Since then, districts in southern Oregon have been weighing their options and developing their policies — but the latest guidance from state and federal officials may have an impact on how they shake out.
NewsWatch 12 reached out to a number of schools in Jackson, Josephine, and Klamath counties earlier this week. Most said that they were either still developing their plans, or intended to make masks optional for students and staff.
The Medford School District is one that has yet to finalize its plans, but administrators said Wednesday that they intend to release an update on guidance for the fall by early next week.
"When the State of Oregon dropped its mask mandate in early July, we allowed face coverings to be optional in our Summer Experience, which serves nearly 1,000 students," said Superintendent Dr. Bret Champion in a statement. "As of today, we have had two staff cases and two student cases (the students were from the same household), and three of the cases arose during the first session when masks were required."
MSD conducted a survey over the past several weeks to get feedback on the mask issue from the community. About 70 percent of respondents said that face coverings should be optional or strongly recommended, while 30 percent said that they should be required for some or all students and staff.
Respondents said that they were 77 percent parents or guardians, almost 19 percent staff members, and 17.5 percent "community members" — with some apparent overlap.
According to MSD, they have also looked at recommendations from health officials, the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Oregon Health Authority.
However, guidance from public health officials altered dramatically just this week with the sudden rise in cases spurred by the Delta variant — with first the CDC, then the OHA, then Jackson County officials recommending that everyone wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.
Currently, only people 12 and older can receive a COVID-19 vaccine — and only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for those as young as 12 — so the majority of school populations below the high school level will necessarily be unvaccinated.
"As we work to compile our guidance for the fall, please know we are considering many factors and doing so with the best interest of our students, staff, families, and community in our hearts," Champion said. "We are charged with mitigating risk, not only of COVID, but of its impacts on teaching and learning."
MSD's next step will be to present its 2021-22 recommendations to the Board of Directors at a meeting on Monday at the North Medford High School auditorium. Public comment will be allowed for 45 minutes, and members of the community are asked to sign up in advance or submit written comment. All written comments will be reviewed by board members.