Portland's Largest School District to Go Mask Optional on March 14

PPS will remove the mask requirement, with other metro area school districts likely to follow suit.

By Julia Silverman March 3, 2022

Oregon’s largest school district is going mask optional as of Monday, March 14, and other large districts, both statewide and in the Portland metropolitan area, are poised to follow suit, Jonathan Garcia, the chief of staff to Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Gurrero, said late Thursday night.

Principals in the district were given official notice of the decision on Thursday evening.

The decision comes after new guidance from public health officials at the federal, state and county level indicating that the entire metro area is now at a low risk level from COVID-19, given plummeting hospitalization rates and case counts.

In fact, all of Oregon is now in either the medium or low risk category, save for rural Grant, Harney, Lake, and Curry Counties, where community levels of COVID are still high, hospital capacity is strained, and universal masking is recommended.

“As educators, we truly believe in the value of listening to public health, and appreciate public health being consistent and aligning, so that we can make decisions that best support the broader community’s effort to move into this next phase,” Garcia said.

The Portland district’s decision to lift the mask mandate had not been considered a done deal, even after Gov. Kate Brown’s administration announced an end to indoor masking in Oregon, first on March 31, then on March 19, and finally at 11:59 pm on March 11. The district had been among the last in the country to reopen school buildings in spring of 2021, and then only for a handful of hours per week, with strict safety mitigation protocols in places, including six foot distancing and cohorting requirements.

And other West Coast urban school districts, including San Francisco and Seattle, have indicated that they will extend masking requirements, even as mask mandates are lifted in other settings.

At the start of the current school year, when school buildings reopened to full-time school, PPS signed an agreement with the Portland Association of Teachers, an affiliate of the National Education Association, that required PPS to “comply with the statewide and Multnomah County mask mandate.”

But with that mandate no longer in place, the union acknowledged in an email to its members on Thursday that, “PPS is within its rights to make mask-wearing optional in PPS schools.”

PAT is currently surveying its members to inform future discussions around COVID safety protocols; teachers are being asked to weigh in on whether they want the district to provide air purifiers in each classroom, require physical distancing, and continue quarantines of those who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Teachers were also asked to indicate whether they would seek any accommodations due to the lifting of the mask mandate, and whether they might resign their positions as a result of the mask-optional decision, according to a copy of the survey shared with Portland Monthly.

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