Transition planning – Silver Falls district going mask-optional March 31

February 2022 Posted in School, Your Health

By Stephen Floyd

The Silver Falls School District has chosen to become mask-optional after statewide mask mandates are lifted March 31.

The district board voted six-to-one Feb. 14 to direct Superintendent Scott Drue to draft policies transitioning away from mask mandates that have been in place since 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Opposing the decision was Board Member Lori McLaughlin, who expressed concerns over dangers still posed by the disease.

Drue said he will work with staff to create a plan for the transition and will take into account issues such as how to handle student and staff quarantines, how to address federal mask mandates for school buses that remain in place, and how to make sure administrators have the support they need to implement policy changes.

“Certain mitigation factors will still need to stay in place, even though masks are optional,” said Drue.

Schools want flexible deadline

The board’s decision came after the Oregon Health Authority announced Feb. 7 that statewide requirements to wear masks in indoor public spaces will be lifted by March 31, if not sooner. Drue said this flexible deadline does not apply to schools, who have a firm deadline of March 31.

Drue said he could not explain why there is a difference between the two, and said he is concerned about the confusion which may result. But unless the state changes its mind, he said the district will have to follow the current firm timetable.

“For right now, even if the mask mandate is lifted for businesses, we still have a hard date of March 31,” he said.

Drue said he is not the only superintendent with concerns about the firm deadline. He and colleagues have reached out to the Oregon Department of Education to potentially relegate to local control sooner.

Board sentiment varied

The board was mixed in its enthusiasm for an end to the mask mandate.

Board members Owen Von Flue and Tom Buchholz said masks were ineffective to begin with and mandating them harmed students.

“I think we’ve hurt ourselves far more than we’ve helped ourselves by wearing masks,” said Von Flue.

“It couldn’t come a second too soon,” said Buchholz, who also expressed interest in rescinding a vaccine mandate for teachers.

Board Member Aaron Koch and Board Chair Jonathan Edmonds expressed confidence in an individual’s ability to choose whether or not to wear a mask.

“I’m completely comfortable with moving back to making it a choice,” said Koch.

“People around [the vulnerable] almost without fail do the right thing,” said Edmonds.

Board member Janet Allanach said she was comfortable going mask-optional if the decision was data-driven and allowed the district to make policy changes “very clear-eyed.” Board Vice Chair Jennifer Traeger said she has been, and continues to be, comfortable following state public health guidelines and also wanted to see data to justify going mask-optional.

Before casting her dissenting vote, McLaughlin said she was “greatly concerned” by recent reports of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, being detected in local wastewater. She said this shows the virus continues to spread and that she wanted to act in the best interest of medically-vulnerable individuals.

“It’s out there, COVID is out there, and I as a board member, not just personally, believe in masks and their mitigation against viruses,” she said.

Public also split

Public comment on the issue was also mixed, with parents, students and constituents sharing a variety of views.

Student Charlotte Dettwyler said students should choose whether or not to wear a mask and be respected for their decision, not told to leave campus or be made to sit outside. She said she has lost confidence in school administrators because of their handling of students who refused to wear masks and were told their resulting lack of access to school facilities was their
own decision.

“That’s the last time I’ll ever trust an administrator because they’re pretty good at tricking you,” she said.

Parent Jordan Uth said she believes it is the responsibility of society to protect the medically vulnerable by wearing masks, and that everyone “can do our part.” She added students should not become the standard-bearers for larger disagreements about COVID-19 policies.

“I understand there are contentious beliefs in our community around mask-wearing, but the schoolyard is not the place for this debate,” she said.

Karl Dettwyler, father of Charlotte Dettwyler, said those who support an end to the mask mandate are not opposed to mask-wearing, rather they support a person’s right to choose without fear of persecution.

“We will not judge you for your choice, we will be glad you have one,” he said. “You stay safe, and I’ll stay free.”

Silverton resident and retired teacher Peggy Hart said she would like to help the district in their time of desperate need for substitute teachers, but the risk of infection keeps her and other potential substitutes away. She said substitutes are often retirees like herself who are either medically vulnerable, or have loved ones who are, and lifting the mask mandate might make teaching even riskier for them.

“I have close friends who are physically vulnerable and it would be a choice that deprived me of their company,” she said.

Calls to remain civil

Jenny Rogers, a parent and local nurse, said she finds herself in the middle of the issue because she sees the validity of arguments on both sides. She said there is value simply in being able to stand up for what you think is right, and that disagreements should not stop both sides from treating each other with respect.

“I just hope that adults can set good examples for the kids and come together to do what’s really good for the kids,”
she said.

Edmonds said, when the district goes mask-optional, he does not want to see students, teachers or staff harassed for their decision to wear or nor wear a mask.

“Once it’s optional, I don’t want to tolerate any mask-shaming from any side of the argument,” he said. “… I implore you to be patient and tolerant and work within the bounds of the system.”

Edmonds also addressed critics who claimed the district still follows mask mandates out of fear of losing federal funding. He said the issue is far more complex and includes the potential for lawsuits and union grievances if the district deviates from public health guidelines.

“I get it, I don’t like it personally, but this is where we are,” he said.

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