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Ripple Effect: Surveying Southern Oregon Schools about COVID Mandates

A bell outside Central Medford High School. Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said his teachers and staff are split over being required to be vaccinated and most of the district's parents are against the mask mandate inside school buildings. (KTVL/File){p}{/p}
A bell outside Central Medford High School. Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said his teachers and staff are split over being required to be vaccinated and most of the district's parents are against the mask mandate inside school buildings. (KTVL/File)

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Heading into the second school year amid the pandemic, Southern Oregon parents, teachers and superintendents are split about required masks inside school buildings and required vaccinations for school staff members.

Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said he has many teachers and staff members both in favor of and against needing to be vaccinated.

“It’s tough to say. The emails I’ve received have certainly been more opposed to vaccinations. But that’s because it’s coming from people who are unvaccinated and are going to have to do something different,” Champion said. “The folks who are already vaccinated or who agree, they’re not sending me letters of support for the Governor’s actions. Although I have heard from some folks who are thrilled with the idea.”

News 10 surveyed five Southern Oregon school district superintendents and asked if most of their teachers and staff are for or against being required to have the COVID-19 vaccine. As Champion said, Medford’s staff is split about the requirement, Grants Pass and Lake County school districts’ superintendents were not sure how their staff felt about it, and in Central Curry and Klamath County school districts, most staff members are against the vaccine mandate.

Grants Pass School District Superintendent Krik Kolb said they surveyed their staff about getting the COVID vaccine in January right after the vaccine rollout started. He said 600 out of the district’s 850 staff members responded to the survey and about 60-percent of them said they would get the COVID vaccine. However, he said being in favor of the vaccine and being in favor of the vaccine requirement are two different feelings among staff in the Grants Pass School District.

“There’s definitely been a shift,” Kolb said. “People have been pretty vocal who don’t want to get the vaccine. They feel like they’ve been put in a really tough position for them personally.”

According to recent guidance from the Oregon Health Authority, after October 18th, “Teachers, school staff and volunteers may not teach, work, learn, study, assist, observe, or volunteer at a school unless they are fully vaccinated or have provided documentation of a medical or religious exception.”

All five Southern Oregon school districts surveyed said they will comply with the vaccination guidelines and the mandatory masks inside school buildings as required by the state.

The Oregon Health Authority guidance also outlines the punishment for not following its COVID guidelines.

“Schools and school-based programs that violate any provision of this rule are subject to civil penalties of $500 per day per violation,” OHA’s guidance states.

Because the vaccination requirement for teachers and staff came out right before the school year, Medford Superintendent Champion said the Oregon Department of Education is still figuring out the systems to track and log vaccination status inside schools.

“We literally have no idea what percentage of our staff are vaccinated,” Champion said. “Some of what we’ve seen from other states and how they’ve handled this is that the employee has to share their vaccination card with HR. Then, that’s checked off and then we’ll be able to know who has what.”

In the OHA’s school staff vaccination guidance, they also have forms teachers and staff can fill out if they want to request medical or religious exceptions for getting the vaccine.

News 10 also asked districts to estimate how many families were in favor of mandatory masks for their children in school buildings?”

In Medford, 65-percent of parents said they were against a mask mandate inside school buildings. However, Champion said that survey was conducted a couple of months ago before the surge of the delta variant and record-setting COVID cases in Jackson County. He said after the spike in cases, several parents emailed him wanting to change their response to the survey.

Grants Pass and Klamath County responded they were not sure how their students’ parents felt about the mask mandate because they did not send out a survey. Lake County Superintendent Michael Carter and Central Curry Superintendent Eric Millburn said most of their students’ parents are against the mask mandate inside school buildings.

“My best estimation is most (Central Curry parents) are against since it was not a local decision and yet another mandate from the Governor's office,” Millburn wrote in an email response to the survey. “I do know that our parents want their children to be safe and are cautious about how they each will approach safety protocols for their children.”

The final question on the survey asked superintendents if they want to regain control of being able to make COVID rules and requirements for their own districts, rather than have those guidelines dictated to them by Governor Kate Brown and the OHA.

All five superintendents said they are in favor of regaining local control of the COVID protocols. Grants Pass’ Kolb and Medford’s Champion said they have been involved in meetings with Governor Brown about giving that rule-setting control back to the local school districts and have been working on ways to reach that point.

“Having some sort of metric that, if we hit this with our hospitalizations, our COVID numbers or whatever, that then we would be able to have local decision-making authority.” Champion said. “And the Governor was very open to that.”

Kolb explained the importance of Grants Pass School District being able to set the COVID guidelines for themselves.

“Regaining that local control can help us better determine when to quarantine when to close down cohorts or classrooms, or even whole school buildings and potentially the district based on our local data and information,” Kolb said. “We would love to be able to be the ones to make those decisions as the opportunity arises.”

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