UMATILLA COUNTY— The era of optional face masks in public schools was short-lived.

On Thursday, July 29, Gov. Kate Brown ordered state agencies to reinstate the mask mandate for K-12 students, a move meant to align with recent recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The science and data are clear: the delta variant is in our communities, and it is more contagious,” Brown said in a statement. “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. 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.”

The news was still fresh on Thursday, but local school leaders said they weren’t surprised by the change in rules. Districts across Eastern Oregon had changed their operational plans to make face masks optional for the 2021-22 school year.

But the pandemic has taken a turn for the worse since the late spring, with Umatilla County at the forefront. Umatilla County has reported some of the highest daily case counts in the state while also sporting one of the state’s lowest vaccination rates. In the meantime, there is still no federally approved vaccine for children under the age of 12.

InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said each phase of the pandemic has been difficult for local schools, but the governor’s announcement means 2021-22 will be the third school year affected in some way by COVID-19. With the issues of masks and vaccinations heavily polarizing across political lines, Mulvihill worried about the pressure teachers, principals and superintendents would be under to enforce the mask mandate.

“We are caught in the crosshairs right now,” he said, adding that residents would need to get vaccinated to return schools to normal.

Tricia Mooney, the superintendent of the Hermiston School District, sounded slightly more optimistic, but said the community would need to come together to support students. Mooney said young students needed to be able to view mouths to build language skills and it was her hope that case rates would fall enough that the district would be able to make masks optional again.

Given the contentiousness surrounding masks, Pendleton Superintendent Chris Fritsch anticipated facing some sort of public pressure even if Pendleton maintained its optional mask policy.

“We are in a difficult situation either way,” he said.

With COVID-19 case rates continuing to rise, both Fritsch and Mulvihill were concerned about the impacts large local events could have on schools. After moving most of its activities virtually last year, the youth-friendly Umatilla County Fair is returning on Aug. 11, only a few weeks before many schools will be reopening for the year. The Pendleton Round-Up also is scheduling its return for the second full week of September, a week the Pendleton School District traditionally takes off to give students a chance to volunteer at the rodeo or enjoy the festivities.

Thanks to extra funding from federal COVID-19 relief stimulus, many local school districts bolstered their summer school programs. According to the Oregon Health Authority, Pendleton and Hermiston reported only one student case each. Mooney said Hermiston did see an uptick in new cases toward the end of summer school, but she attributed it to community spread rather than summer school itself.

While schools were closed for a significant portion of the 2020-21 school year, cases did start creep up once in-person instruction resumed in the spring. Hermiston reported 39 student cases while Pendleton documented 26.

While the governor issued orders reinstating the mask rules in schools, it will be the Oregon Department of Education that will be charged with writing the actual rules. Local administrators are still looking for clarification on whether staff will be required to wear masks and if there are any other additional requirements that will be reintroduced.

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