Starting Saturday, March 12, Oregon lifted the state-wide mask mandate for the use of masks in indoor public places, including schools. Masks will still be required in special settings such as public transportation and healthcare environments. Following suit, Portland Public Schools (PPS) will lift their mask mandate in schools as of Monday, March 14. Many Franklin students and staff question whether or not this is the right time in the pandemic to make mask use optional, while others welcome the lifting of the mandate.
State-wide COVID-19 cases are low compared to the last several months, with 378 new cases per day in the week leading up to March 13, 2022, according to the New York Times. In addition, 77.2% of Oregonians have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose as of March 13, per Our World in Data. In Multnomah County, more than 80% have been vaccinated, as of March 14, based on Oregon Health Authority data. However, many still worry about possible exposure through school, which could put immunocompromised members of the Franklin community at risk.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic we have done everything we’ve been able to do to make sure our schools are following all of the safety guidance out there,” says Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT). “We did a lot of research on what the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] was recommending for public places and what the Oregon Health Association [OHA] was recommending for public spaces and making sure those standards are kept in our schools.”
Thiel discussed the district’s and PAT’s desire to keep everyone safe, as well as concerns as to how people will react to the lifted mandate. “I know that teachers, like students and families, have a lot of [strong] feelings about what is the best way to proceed,” she says. “I am nervous about people feeling upset by the rules being less clear, or by being around people without masks if they are not comfortable, so I do feel nervous that this transition may be hard on people.”
Some staff and students throughout the district and at Franklin have been very vocal about their opposition to the mandate being lifted. To show this, a student walkout took place on Friday, March 11, when students left school and protested at the Portland Public Schools district building in an attempt to keep the district mandate in place.
“I am not going to take my mask off when the ban is lifted because I believe that it is unsafe and it puts people, especially people who are immunocompromised, at risk unnecessarily and I honestly think that it’s a little selfish to be taking your mask off when there are so many people that it could hurt,” says Franklin junior Fina Sabatini, who participated in the walkout. Sabatini also expressed concerns about the passing period between classes at Franklin with unmasked students in the hallways. “I feel like I am going to be late to class because I am going to be avoiding passing periods,” says Sabatini.
Sabatini is not the only student with concerns about the mandate being lifted. Franklin senior Shala Santa Cruz Krigbaum also plans to keep their mask on and worries what will happen at school when the mandate is lifted. “What makes me uncomfortable is seeing people who aren’t wearing masks anymore demean people who are continuing to wear them. I want to be able to go to school and not get shamed for being extra careful,” says Santa Cruz Krigbaum. “Already I’ve had people snicker about me and others continuing to wear a mask.”
On the other hand, there are many individuals who plan on removing their masks. “I intend to take my mask off starting March 14. I may choose to wear my mask if I am leaning in close to students, especially if they have a mask on, and especially the first week the mandate is lifted—to ease the transition for students,” says a Franklin teacher who has requested to stay anonymous.
“I feel safe taking my mask off, and my knowledge of COVID indicates that the probability of me passing it on to others is extremely low. We cannot wear masks forever … it’s time to have the option of taking them off,” adds the teacher. “If students or teachers feel unsafe or uncomfortable, then public education may not be a good setting for them at this time. However, when sick, I believe students and teachers should stay home and wear a mask for a few days after their return.”