OHA files permanent rules for masking in schools

By Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Sweet Home schools Supt. Lisa Riggs says she wasn’t surprised by the Oregon Health Authority’s announcement late last week that it was making requirements for masking indoors in K-12 schools permanent, and that school and school-based program staff be vaccinated.

“We’re already doing this, so this doesn’t actually inhibit us,” Riggs said Monday, as the district launched into the second half of its school year.

State health officials emphasized that the rule filing “will maintain masking protections during the current Omicron surge,” according to an OHA statement.

The state is developing measures to determine when it may be safe to lift the school mask rule, the OHA said. The permanent rules replace temporary rules, which are only valid for 180 days, which are expiring.

The state also expected to file permanent rules requiring health care workers to wear masks, and for health care workers in most health care settings to be fully vaccinated.

A public comment period, including public hearings, which ended Jan. 24, elicited numerous critical comments regarding the plan.

At a news conference on Friday, Jan. 21, Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer and state epidemiologist, said that while the rules are permanent, OHA can loosen or rescind them as conditions with the pandemic change, particularly with hospitalizations.

“We need to look at the number of COVID-19-positive folks in the hospital who are receiving care and the impact on the ability of the hospitals to provide care,” he said. “What we know right now is that those numbers are still increasing but are anticipated to peak soon – within the next week to week and a half – and then are anticipated to come down rather quickly.”

Sidelinger added that the drop in hospitalizations is likely to happen quicker than during the Delta surge in fall 2021, as the length of stay and the amount of critical care needed for patients is less.

“So I would anticipate, in the coming weeks to month and a half, that we will see a significant decrease in the number of people with COVID in the hospital,” he said, “and at that time it’ll be a time to start talking about ‘Can we move from a requirement for masks in indoor public spaces to a recommendation for certain populations or in certain communities where rates are higher?’”

Sidelinger also said that actions people in Oregon take over the next several weeks will be critical to ensuring the state’s hospitals have enough capacity to meet the needs of all patients needing care. That means getting primary and booster vaccines, continuing to wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces, keeping gatherings small and staying home if you are sick or if you test positive.

“It also means extending protective measures that were enacted earlier in the pandemic requiring mask wearing in schools and health care settings, and requiring vaccinations for school employees and health care workers and wearing masks in indoor settings,” he said.

On Jan. 21 Alsea Schools Supt. Marc Thielman announced that the district would disregard state COVID mandates and allow students and staff to forgo masks when they returned to school buildings on Monday, Jan. 31.

Thielman, who is also a Republican gubernatorial candidate, oversees the 838 students enrolled in the district about 30 miles southwest of Corvallis. He said he would accept losing some $48,000 in federal COVID relief money

“On Monday, masks will be optional,” he said. “They’ve been exhausting and harming the school climate.”

On Friday Thielman posted a letter to the district website saying that the Alsea School Board had voted to defy the state mask mandate and he would follow its guidance. Students and staff would no longer need to wear masks at the district’s two school buildings, only on the bus.

Two days later, on Sunday, Colt Gilt, director of the state Education Department, sent a letter by email to Thielman and Ron Koetz, chair of the school board, letting them know the department would not be reimbursing any of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars the district had previously been entitled to, unless they changed course.

That same Sunday, Thielman posted a letter to the district site saying he had decided to close schools Monday and Tuesday due to COVID-related staff shortages. On Monday, Jan. 24, Thielman made the decision to keep schools closed through the rest of the week and said that they would reopen Jan. 31.

Oregon has $1.7 billion available for schools from the federal relief fund to help pay for building improvements, teachers and programs to help students catch up on lost class time and learning opportunities.

In Sweet Home, Riggs said, most of the district staff have complied with state requirements. She said she only had one employee “who refused to wear a mask.”

Meanwhile, the state has relaxed rules dividing students into cohorts, requiring strict contact tracing and long periods of isolation after contact with someone who has tested positive.

Riggs said Monday she had just finished talking with one of her principals who had expressed relief that, as he told her, “I don’t have to worry about cohorts or contact tracing. That just makes it easier.”

“There have been changes that have actually helped us,” Riggs noted.

Consistency in the rules will help, she said, “keeping kids in schools, not having transitions.”

COVID fatigue is a big problem for the school district right now, she said.

“Right now, with COVID cases, one-third of the staff is out, then it’s back and another third is out. COVID fatigue is real.”

Riggs said she’s seen the Sweet Home community step up to support the schools, but residents need to know that the problems are not imaginary.

She said the district will likely need to fill some 20 teaching positions this summer, thanks to “retirements and people needing change.”

“We need staff like crazy,” she said, adding that the district plans to be represented at three job fairs this spring.

“You might see me out on the street corner, passing out flyers. We need custodians, bus drivers, teachers.”

She noted she has decided to give staff an extra paid day off on Feb. 18, the Friday before President’s Day, to give them a chance to recuperate.

“I just feel like the community needs to rally around our schools,” she said.

– Oregon Capital Chronicle reporting is included in this story. To see more OCC reporting of state government, visit sweethomenews.com and click on the small “Oregon Capital Chronicle” button to the left of the list of Sweet Home Stories.