Teacher and students with face masks in classroom
Masks will be optional in Philomath classrooms beginning March 12. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The faces of Philomath’s youth will return to school campuses beginning March 12, Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday announced Thursday. Face coverings will become optional on district property and in school buses.

“It’s going to be very, very different,” Halliday said when asked how it will feel to see students’ maskless faces in the hallways.

Halliday said the district moved forward with the decision in alignment with recommendations from the Benton County Health Department, Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education.

“This decision has not been made lightly,” Halliday said. “We have reviewed CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as well as OHA information, coupled with contact with the Benton County Health Department. We will be continually watching data to determine any changes that may need to occur between now and the end of the school year.”

The updated guidance to the Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework occurred just a few days after the announcement that state mask mandates would end on March 12. Gov. Kate Brown announced the lifting of the mandates on Monday after seeing an encouraging trend of fewer COVID-related infections and hospitalizations statewide.

In Philomath, the school district has followed requirements set forth by the Benton County Health Department since the beginning of the pandemic. Some parents have been vocal about their children being forced to wear masks at school.

 “The majority that I’ve heard from want the mandate lifted and have wanted optional face coverings for a long time,” Halliday said.

Continuing the thought, Halliday added that she found responses to an email sent out earlier in the week to be very enlightening. Parents shared opinions with many expressing appreciation for how the district has handled the pandemic.

“Respectful and just good insight from people saying, ‘right now, it’s time to be able to take a break and recognize what are the circumstances under which we might have to go back to face coverings as a mandatory’ … working out the details as to what that could be,” Halliday said.

Schools in Benton County have been coordinating with one another, she added.

“It’s been great to be in dialogue and to have similar decisions that we’ve reached to be able to move forward,” Halliday said. “So, that feels really good.”

Halliday said the district planned to send out letters to families with details of the announcement. She also mentioned that the district will follow-up with more information in the coming days, including answers to frequently asked questions.

Halliday said staff members may choose to continue wearing masks and added that the staff vaccination requirement remains in effect.

As the masks come off, some may choose to continue wearing one, which could open them up as a target of “mask shaming.” The school has already seen some examples in the past and Halliday isn’t taking the issue lightly, asking staff to be attentive to any of those situations that may come up.

“It’s really about being able to say, ‘this is a personal choice’ and because some individuals still may want to wear them, we need to respect their desire to want to continue to wear them,” Halliday said, “just as much as they need to respect our desire to not. So, it goes both ways.”

The school district plans to do the weekly case count that has been published on its website. 

Contact tracing will no longer be attempted to try to determine the source of an outbreak. Halliday said COVID tests will continue to be available to staff and students if they think they might’ve been exposed. And there will be a supply of face masks for those who opt to wear one.

“It’s just continuing to inform families of what we’re seeing within the district and wanting to be supportive in any way,” Halliday said. “We’re still looking at being able to say to the degree possible, we want to remember things like hand hygiene and being aware of distance in the places where we can be, and really being thoughtful about those other mitigating factors but they’re not going to be able to stop us from being able to move forward.”

Parents and guardians will make decisions from home about whether or not to quarantine their children if they were possibly exposed or even if they’ve tested positive. State health officials recommend a quarantine of five days if a student tests positive for COVID, or until symptoms fully subside.

On Thursday, Oregon State University announced that it will return to a full, in-person graduation this spring. When asked about Philomath High’s graduation, Halliday anticipates that it will be opened up again to all who want to attend.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.