Gov. Kate Brown talks with first graders in teacher Christopher Ramos' dual language class at Lincoln Elementary School on the first day back to in-person learning in Woodburn, Ore. on Thursday, April 1, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem students and educators returning to classrooms in the fall will have to wear a mask indoors, Gov. Kate Brown said Thursday.

The governor directed the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education to create a rule requiring masks inside all Oregon K-12 schools for the 2021-22 school year, citing the wider spread of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus.

“The science and data are clear: the Delta variant is in our communities, and it is more contagious,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “My priority is to ensure our kids are able to safely return to full-time in-person learning this fall, five days per week and with minimal disruptions. With many children still ineligible to be vaccinated, masks are an effective way to help keep our kids safe in the classroom, the learning environment we know serves them best."

The governor’s decision is an about-face from the local control she and other state officials said would guide the return to full-time, in-person school in the fall. Other state health guidelines that had been mandatory during the previous school year, like requiring three feet of distance between students in classes, have become recommendations for districts or school boards to adopt as they see fit.

Brown's decision comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended all students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools wear masks, even if vaccinated against Covid.

Salem-Keizer School District administrators had not yet made a decision about mask-wearing in the fall prior to Brown's announcement.

District administrators are holding virtual sessions Aug. 4 and 6 from 6 to 7 p.m. to discuss fall health and safety plans with families and hear concerns and questions. Families will receive emails with details about participating.

A final plan for how district schools will operate in the fall will be presented to the school board Aug. 10.

“We do know there are families who have concerns about the wearing of face coverings, who feel it is a choice, and who just do not want their kids wearing face coverings. We also have families who are very afraid about Covid and who do not want to be in an environment where students have an option to wear or not wear a face covering. We heard some of these concerns at our board meeting on Tuesday night,” said Sylvia McDaniel, the district’s director of community relations, in an email.

Disability was a major concern among parents who spoke against requiring masks at a July 27 school board meeting. Several parents said their children are unable to wear masks due to medical conditions like epilepsy which are triggered by having their faces covered, or because they struggle to follow directions or understand instruction when they can’t see a teacher’s face.

Any guidance adopted would allow the mask requirement to be modified “for face covering challenges related to disability or specific medical conditions,” said Peter Rudy, Oregon Department of Education spokesman, in an email.

McDaniel said in addition to sessions for families, district employees “will also reach out to families who have students with disabilities, marginalized and hard-to-reach families to ask for their input so we can be sensitive to their needs.”

An Oregon Health Authority spokesman said Tuesday morning the agency was working on new guidance following Brown’s order, but he did not say when details would be released.

The mask requirement applies to all K-12 schools in Oregon, public and private, said Charles Boyle, Brown’s spokesman.

It won’t apply to outdoor activities at schools, like recess, or after school activities, including sports. Boyle said the Oregon School Activities Association and Oregon Department of Education would have more details on sports once the health authority issues a rule.

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

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