By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Masks made optional in Mac schools beginning March 12

McMinnville students will have the option of taking off their masks on buses and in class as of March 12, the school board decided Monday night.

The state announced earlier that day that mask mandates would end March 12. However, it left it to individual school districts to make masks optional or continue requiring them.

McMinnville School Board members agreed students should have the choice — as long as COVID case rates remain low. 

Board member Jason Bizon pointed out that he and his fellow members had considered the masking issue at length, spoken with constituents and reviewed information and recommendations from health officials. “We don’t want the public to think we’re taking this on hastily,” he said.

Bizon and other board members also said students and staff would be encouraged to continue wearing masks if they are immune compromised or feel safer with face coverings. They want to make sure those who choose to wear masks aren’t teased or treated differently.

As of Monday, Yamhill County was listed as “medium” on the scale of low to high numbers of COVID cases, Superintendent Debbie Brockett said. If the numbers rise, the district may need to reconsider asking students to mask, board members agreed.

The board voted 6-0 (with one member absent) to approve ending the mask mandate. The vote occurred in unusual circumstances.

The mask topic was on the agenda for the board’s work session Monday night, but prior to that day, no one expected they’d be voting — they planned to do that at their regular business meeting March 14. However, when the state moved up its mandate ending date to March 12, board members decided they had to make a decision right away.

Usually, work sessions are for discussion and information only, and voting is done only during business sessions. This time, however, the board took its vote during the work session, as well.

According to the Oregon School Boards Association, that’s legal, although it has not been the practice in McMinnville.

In fact, it was the first time the board voted in a work session in at least 37 years.

While masks will
become optional, schools will continue COVID safety measures such as social distancing. Brockett said the district will follow state Department of Education and health guidelines, as well as county and federal guidelines in order to keep students and staff safe.

She said the state would to issue a list of mitigation strategies on March 2. She planned to discuss the strategies with both the teacher and classified staff unions that day.

After board members asked whether parents will be required to tell schools if their children come down with COVID, Brockett said there has never been such a requirement.

However, she said, the district encourages parents to report positive cases and keep children home if they are sick.

If parents are concerned that their child has been exposed to someone with COVID, they can ask the school to perform a test, the superintendent said.
The district also will continue hosting vaccine clinics.

Brockett, other school
personnel and board members agreed that they want students to be able to stay in school and get the best education possible.

School board member Dr. Paul Haddeland, a physician, noted, “Just because we don’t wear masks, that doesn’t mean COVID goes away.”

McMinnville School District has been surveying parents and staff about the idea of ending or continuing mask mandates.

About 62% of parents who responded favored making masks optional. 

About 61% of staff wanted masks to become optional, and 39% – including 43% of responding teachers – said they would prefer keeping masks at least for the rest of the school year. 

About 600 of the district’s approximately 900 employees had responded to the staff survey by Monday.