No decision on masks in Salem schools as federal, state recommendations shift

Nyjah Angeles raises a hand during the first day back to school at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Federal and state health authorities are now recommending even vaccinated Americans wear masks while indoors in public, but it’s unclear how the change will affect 40,000 Salem students heading back to school.

That decision is in the hands of Salem-Keizer School District administrators, who are still crafting policies as they plan to resume full-time, in-person classes in the fall.

Superintendent Christy Perry indicated Tuesday night that mask wearing would be among the topics discussed as the district seeks parent feedback through surveys and community events in the coming days.

Virtual sessions for parents to speak with district administrators are currently scheduled on Aug. 4 and 6, from 6 to 7 p.m. Families will receive emails with details about participating.

District spokeswoman Emily Hicks said Salem-Keizer leaders intend have their recommendations for fall return to school protocols available at those sessions, if not before, so parents can “share what their concerns are, what supports they need.”

A final plan will be presented to the school board August 10, she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended all students, school employees and visitors at K-12 schools wear masks in the fall while indoors, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated against Covid.

Previously, the CDC had said only unvaccinated students and employees needed to mask up.

The agency also said all Americans in areas where Covid spread is high should wear masks indoors, even if they’ve been vaccinated.

The Oregon Health Authority on Tuesday echoed the recommendation on indoor masking, citing the wider spread of the more contagious Delta variant of Covid, which has rapidly become the dominant strain of the virus in Oregon.

The authority didn’t specifically address schools in its statement Tuesday night, or in a recorded question and answer session with health advisor Dr. Bukhosi Dube on Wednesday.

Asked whether the health authority considers schools public places, spokeswoman Erica Heartquist said health officials would review the CDC’s recommendations and “update existing face covering recommendations to align.”

But Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority officials have shown little desire to mandate school policies in the fall, instead leaving decisions up to individual districts and county health authorities.

Both Marion County and Oregon have recorded more people diagnosed with Covid and more people hospitalized with the disease in recent weeks.

Schools are of particular concern because there is no vaccine against Covid approved for children 11 and younger, meaning most elementary school students don’t have the option to get vaccinated.

Several parents spoke against requiring masks during Tuesday’s school board work session, saying they have students with disabilities who cannot wear masks because it triggers their epilepsy or makes it difficult for them to understand what teachers and peers are saying.

More wrote to the school board ahead of the work session, with a majority of written comments opposed to requiring masks. A minority said they supported requiring masks, with some parents saying they would keep their kids in all-online classes unless masks were required for all.

Perry said the question of requiring masks in schools goes beyond “individual choice” because it’s often the students most vulnerable to Covid – like those with asthma – who struggle most to wear a mask.

“There will be people that need an accommodation that cannot wear a mask for a variety of reasons and often they’re the people who have compromising conditions,” she said. “My choice affects them.”

The new federal and state recommendations only cover indoor activities, so rules for outdoor sports are unlikely to change.

The Oregon School Activities Association has yet to update its policies, last released on July 1 but according to OSAA spokesperson Peter Weber, the organization is keeping a close eye on state agencies.

“We’re waiting and watching,” Weber said.

Current OSAA policy allows districts to decide whether to require masks during athletics and school activities.

Salem-Keizer does not currently require masks for students or employees during outdoor activities. Students and employees are required to wear masks during indoor summer school programs currently operating.

Caitlyn May contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.