Nyssa School staff member Mandy Esplin helps adjust a mask for Ethan Castro as he gets ready for kindergarten class. (The Enterprise/Les Zaitz)

ONTARIO – Malheur County students and school staff will be required to wear face masks while indoors at the start of this upcoming school year under a new order from Gov. Kate Brown as concerns about coronavirus once again grow.

The decision imposes an uncomfortable mandate in a county where earlier this month, the majority of school boards voted to recommend but not require masks.

“I think that most of us were caught a little off guard, given that three weeks ago (the governor) said we weren’t going to have to, that it was going to be a local decision,” said Kevin Purnell, superintendent of Adrian School District. 

“It’s not going over well, I’ll just say that,” said Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District. “At this point I really don’t know where we’re at, because we were under local control and now we’re not.”

Redmond said that more information would come Monday, Aug. 2, when the state holds a meeting between officials from the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Health Authority, and school superintendents from around Oregon. 

For now, the Oregon Department of Education declared in a press release that “requiring universal use of face coverings inside schools is necessary.”

The governor’s order Thursday which led to the department’s new rule asked for a mask mandate in schools “in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recently updated guidance, and based on the latest science on the spread of the Delta variant.”

In new guidelines released Tuesday, the CDC had placed special emphasis on masking in educational settings. Even as the agency stopped short of recommending universal indoor masking for all people, it did ask for “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.” 

Later that day, the Oregon Health Authority publicly aligned with the new federal recommendations through its own universal indoor masking recommendation. 

Only two days later, the governor asked them to harden their stance regarding schools to a mandate. 

“It’s expected that the state often will align with the CDC recommendations,” said Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department. “They are recommendations though, and that’s where I think things get a little confusing between what’s a rule and what’s guidance and what’s recommended...I find that in our communities people appreciate local decision making, so I feel it would be better if we could leave it as recommendations.”

Prior to the governor’s announcement, the Oregon Department of Education’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework recommended, but did not require Covid prevention practices like mask wearing and cohorting. 

In Vale and Nyssa, family surveys were conducted to gauge opinion on these options. In both districts, almost 90% of those polled expressed a desire for masks to remain recommended instead of required. 

Redmond said it was too early to say how the mandate would be enforced.

“Some communities and school districts will welcome this universal approach aligned with the CDC’s recommendations to ensure student, staff and family well-being,” said Colt Gill, state Education Department director. “And, we recognize some communities will struggle with a statewide rule. While most COVID-19 mitigation decisions are determined locally, this is one that is needed statewide to counter the impacts of the highly transmissible Delta variant among a mostly unvaccinated population. We expect superintendents and school board directors to partner with the state in the implementation of this rule. Our hope is that vaccines become available for our younger students later this year and we can focus on vaccination efforts to counter the spread of COVID-19 in the coming months.”

Poe said that the way forward for Covid prevention efforts in Malheur County was primarily through expanded access to testing and vaccines. She said that before the governor’s announcement, many local districts already had arrangements with the Oregon Health Authority to conduct free on-site testing of students and personnel.

Still, she cautioned, it would be “naive” to think that the Delta variant will pass over Malheur County. 

Malheur County’s vaccine rate, which remains around 38%, is among the worst in the state.

“Really, the Delta variant is a risk for any unvaccinated population,” Poe said. “We know that school settings for those who are under age 12 at this time, that is a completely unvaccinated population. We really don’t have significant protection from the vaccine in any age group in our population. We are worried that we will see a significant increase of cases among the unvaccinated,” she said. 

Vaccines are available for free for people ages 12 and up at various locations throughout Malheur County, including at the Malheur County Health Department and Rite Aid. They also are being provided free at the Malheur County Fair, which runs through Saturday.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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