By the end of March, hospitalizations are projected to fall below pre-Omicron levels (fewer than 400 COVID-19 hospitalizations). Oregon has fared better than almost every state in the nation throughout the pandemic with some of the lowest cases (3rd lowest) and death rates (8th lowest) in the country, because Oregonians made smart choices, like wearing masks and getting booster shots.
If the predicted pathway continues, then no later than March 31st, OHA will lift the mask requirements from the statewide indoor mask rule (333-019-1025). If hospitalizations fall to safer levels more quickly, before March 31st, state health officials will consider lifting the statewide mask rule sooner for indoor public spaces.
What This Means For Schools
OHA will lift the mask rule (333-019-1015) in schools on March 31. This date is established to provide certainty and planning time for schools. The March 31 date to lift the school mask rule occurs after the majority of schools complete spring break.
As of March 31, the decision to require universal masking in school settings will rest with decision makers in school districts, charter schools, private schools, and local public health authorities. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OHA and ODE continue to strongly advise the use of face coverings in schools in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and minimize the impact of quarantine through the school year.
Masks are required on public transportation, which includes school buses until lifted by the federal government and cannot be waived by state or local authorities.
OHA and ODE continue to work together to update school guidance so schools can continue to operate safely after mask rules are lifted.
How Schools Can Prepare
The March 31 date gives schools time to prepare for the transition from an operational standpoint, and gives families time to get boosted, and to get their kids vaccinated. Among the things schools can do are:
- Encourage eligible staff and students ages 5 and up to get vaccinated and boosted now if they’re not.
- Vaccination remains the best protection against serious illness from COVID-19 and reduces spread of the disease.
- Vaccination prevents quarantine when exposed to COVID-19 and ensures access to in-person learning.
- Get Vaccinated Oregon.
- Revisit and strengthen COVID-19 mitigation protocols, which will change if schools decide not to implement universal masking indoors. For example, the Test to Stay Protocol is only available in settings where universal masking is in place.
- Collaborate with school and district leaders, local school boards, represented employee groups, students, families, and community to align decision making based on data and the priority of access to in person education. ODE has provided tools and resources for local decision making that supports continuity of services. These include:
- Data-Based Decision Guide;
- Equity Decision Tool;
- Local Data Dashboard;
- Care and Connection Mental Health and Wellbeing Resources for students and staff; and
- Much more.
Schools may continue to require students, staff, volunteers, and/or visitors to wear face coverings during indoor or outdoor activities, similar to other COVID-19 mitigation protocols such as physical distancing, and airflow/ventilation. Similarly, schools may be required by local ordinance to continue requiring staff and students to wear face coverings.
In the Absence of Universal Masking:
- Schools will return to using the general exposure definition: Having been within 6 feet of a confirmed or presumptive COVID-19 case for 15 minutes or more within one day, or having been in contact with the infectious secretions of a confirmed or presumptive COVID-19 case.
- This will likely result in more days out of school for unvaccinated students and staff, and more classroom and school closures due to staffing constraints. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, this will impact district’s medically complex and historically underserved students, staff, and communities the hardest.
- In the absence of universal masking, schools will not be able to use the Test to Stay Protocol to allow students and staff to attend school during a quarantine period.
- Universal use of face coverings remains a prerequisite for the Test to Stay Protocol. Diagnostic testing will remain accessible to all schools regardless of mask use.
- General quarantine guidance for students and staff who return on day 6 of their quarantine will include the continued need to wear a well fitted mask for days 6 through 10 of their quarantine.
- Universal masking is a key measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In its absence, schools should anticipate significant increases in workload from contact tracing and notification.
The impact of this change both for school districts and schools that maintain universal masking and those that make masking optional will take time, careful planning, and collaboration.
This table developed in consultation with OHA may offer some assistance. It is clear that masks work. Universal use of masks have helped keep Oregonians safe throughout the pandemic.
- A large majority of Oregonians wear masks: According to Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), 8 in 10 Oregonians report that they continue to wear masks indoors.
- Masks have protected our in-person learning and our health care system:
- Mask requirements were surge protocols, for Delta and Omicron surges that threatened to overwhelm health care workers and disrupt in-person learning in schools.
- We would have had more than 1,540 Omicron hospitalizations if Oregon had the same hospitalization rate as the national average, according to OHSU.
- And, once hospitalizations subside it will be safer to lift mask rules in some communities and manage the pandemic differently – with more local decision-making for school districts, counties, and businesses.
The Helix School District will collaborate with staff, students, and families as we anticipate the shift to more local control on March 31.