Crook County superintendent to push back against new K-12 mask mandate

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Pencils, crayons, notebooks….and masks.

The necessary school supplies for K-12 students this fall will once again include face coverings after Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday directed state health and education agencies to create a new rule requiring them.

She said making masks mandatory inside schools is necessary if students are to return to full-time, in-person instruction.

“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,” she said. “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.”

But at least one local superintendent plans to push back.

Late Thursday, Crook County School District Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson issued a statement saying she was “surprised” to learn of the new mandate considering in June Brown said future decisions would be decided at the local level.

“Since the beginning of July, our school district has served over 1,000 students in the largest summer school program in the region. Students have been in school without masks, and we’ve reported no outbreaks or spread of the virus,” she said.

“This is why I fully support the opportunity to make our own decisions based on what’s happening with the virus at the local level and develop COVID-19 safety plans with our incredible partners at the Crook County Health Department.”

Johnson said she hopes the ultimate decision is left up to local districts.

“My goal is to allow staff and families to make their own health decisions about masks, while also fully supporting anyone who wants to wear one for their own protection,” she said. “I’m determined to retain local control and decision-making that’s in the best interest of our community and Crook County School District.”

District Spokesman Jason Carr stopped short of saying the district would ignore the new rules.

“A lot can happen between now and when we start school,” he said. “We can’t say for certain what’s going to happen other than that’s our position and we want to start the school year without a mask mandate.”

“I’m determined to retain local control and decision-making that’s in the best interest of our community and Crook County School District.” – Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson

Carr also said he thought it would be difficult to enforce the mask rules this time around in Prineville.

“That is really going to be a fight,” he said. “I think that’s going to be really, really difficult. The pushback is going to be pretty enormous.”

On Tuesday the Oregon Health Authority issued a new recommendation that everyone wear masks in indoor public settings, following the CDCs lead.

Considering the new delta variant, the CDC also recommended masks for all teachers, students, and staff regardless of vaccination status.

Brown’s request and the new recommendations will force some school districts to reverse course on their mask policies this fall.

Earlier this summer – when COVID cases were at their lowest point in months – Redmond and Crook County schools announced they would not require masks when students returned in September.

Deschutes Co. COVID Cases

But this week, Redmond School District Spokeswoman Sheila Miller told Central Oregon Daily News that Superintendent Charan Cline “will continue to monitor our local case counts and all of the recommendations from state and federal health authorities, but we will not make any immediate changes to our plan to recommend but not require masks in our schools this fall.”

Bend-La Pine Schools officials have said they were talking with local and state health agencies and planned to make a decision on August 10th.

A large anti-mask contingent was expected to show up Thursday night to a school board leadership listening session, hoping to sway the district to decide against requiring masks.

It appears, though, that decision has already been made for them.

COVID cases across the state and locally have been increasing in recent weeks.

Deschutes County this week has already reported 126 new COVID cases – that’s more than were reported each week over the last month.

Twice this week, the state reported more than 1,000 new COVID cases, the highest single-day totals since late April.

Brown encouraged all Oregonians to mask-up while in indoor public spaces and urged those who weren’t vaccinated yet to get the shot.

“We will continue working hard to vaccinate more people so we can finally beat this virus once and for all,” she said. “Vaccines remain the most effective and best way to protect ourselves and our families.”

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