SALEM, Ore — As schools prepare for a full return to in-person learning within the next few weeks, some school districts in southern Oregon are asking the state for control over covid mandates in schools.
Governor Kate Brown ordered all students and staff to wear a mask, regardless of their vaccination status back on August 2nd. The decision was in response to the spike in coronavirus cases across the state amid the more contagious Delta variant rapidly spreading.
Bret Champion, Superintendent of the Medford School District, is urging the state to reverse its response and allow local officials to make decisions on the mandates as opposed to the state.
“All the work that we had done to build towards a decision about the fall just got scrubbed,” Champion said in response to the mandate. “The best decisions are made with local context with local leaders, making those decisions. If there are going to be decisions made that impact the local level, let our voices be heard on the front end and not just on the back end.”
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Champion made clear the letter is not against the mask mandate, but rather giving the school Board the ability to adjust rules based on the covid situation at the County level.
Jackson County Commissioners will also not have a say in either of the school district’s decision, if the request is approved by the state according to Champion. He says decisions would instead be based on guidance from local health officials and less from political leaders.
“That was our request, that instead of thinking big like the state of Oregon let’s think within our valley,” said Champion. We certainly have a good relationship with our County Commissioners and all of our elected officials. But in terms of decision making, the county element that we work with much closely is Jackson County Public Health.”
The Medford School District sent a survey to families over the summer, with more than 60% of responses in favor of making masks optional rather than mandatory. Champion acknowledged that the data is now outdated since it was sent before the Delta variant became an issue.
He says they plan to address the situation, but retaining local decision-making would have to be the first step in the process.
“We’re not going to take old data and make new decisions off it,” Champion said. “We don’t have local control authority, so we’re not going to do this right now. We’re not going to spend our energy on something that’s not moving forward.”
Jackson County Public Health Director Dr. Jim Shames, is in support of the mask mandate. He encourages households and school officials to be vaccinated with many age groups still ineligible.
The Medford School District for the time being is shifting its focus towards the beginning of the school year in person next Monday.
“Masks or no masks, the reality is that we are coming back to school,” Champion said. “We have put the letter out there and now we’re making sure we have a great experience for our kids on Monday.
“We are investing our energy in the Medford School District.”