Camas-Washougal schools to make masks optional March 21

Local school district leaders say they intend to follow state guidelines on COVID-19 mitigations; Gov. Inslee recently set date for the end of statewide mask mandate

With the state’s mask mandate set to end on March 21, school leaders in Camas and Washougal say they will continue to follow state guidelines on COVID-19 mitigations and make masks optional for students and staff as of Monday, March 21.

Camas School District Interim Superintendent Doug Hood sent a letter to Camas families last week, following Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Feb. 17 announcement about the end of the statewide mask mandate.

“Once the statewide mask requirement lifts on March 21 … masks will become optional in our school buildings. Staff and students will have the choice to wear a mask at school, with the expectation that others’ choices will be respected,” Hood told Camas school families. “One should not make assumptions regarding someone’s beliefs or health status, nor should they comment on them. As a reminder, our district does not tolerate bullying of any kind for those who choose to continue to wear or not wear a mask.”

Hood said school district leaders expect to receive additional information from the Washington State Department of Health in the coming weeks and will continue to communicate new COVID guidance to Camas families.

“Masks will still be required on school buses per a federal mandate that requires masks to be worn on all forms of public transportation,” Hood added.

Camas School District Communications Director Doreen McKercher said Tuesday that the district expects to receive more guidance from the state department of health before March 7.

“Guidance around distancing, ventilation and sanitation will change from requirements to recommendations effective March 21,” McKercher said.

The school district will still be required to report COVID cases and outbreaks, she added, and will continue to provide COVID tests for staff and students showing symptoms or who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive.

“Local health officers will continue to monitor community case counts and hospitalizations,” McKercher added, “and they may add new mitigation measures for schools if they deem it necessary.”

The Washougal School District also plans to lift their indoor mask mandate according to the state’s timeline..

“We are waiting for more guidance about the specifics from both the state Department of Health and Labor and Industries, but our plan is to make masks optional for students and staff, following whatever guidance is in place at the time,” said Les Brown, director of communications and technology.

Inslee says state taking steps ‘to regain a more normal life’

Inslee  announced the end of the state’s mask mandate — meant to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 — during a virtual press conference on Feb. 17.

“We are … experiencing a significant decline in cases in the state that will allow us, in the upcoming weeks, to take further steps forward in regaining a more normal life in the state of Washington,” Inslee said, adding he is confident Washington will be able to remove the mask mandate on March 21, and be able to keep transmission rates low enough to avoid straining the state’s hospital systems.

“Our goal is to reduce infection rates low enough that hospitals are not jammed with COVID patients,” Inslee said. “There is a hint of caution, though, as the hospitalization rate today is higher than at any time in the pandemic other than those in the past couple weeks. It’s still extremely high and continues to put pressures on our hospitals and continues to take lives in our state. We know we have a journey to get these numbers down.”

The state’s most recent projections and data show that the rate of COVID infections will be low enough by the third week in March to lift the mask mandate without posing a risk to the hospitals, Inslee said.

The governor said individual business owners will still be able to impose mask requirements and stressed that some people — including teachers and students — may still feel more comfortable wearing masks to protect themselves against the deadly virus.

“People will be able to make individual decisions about masks after March 21,” Inslee said. “You will be able, should you desire, to wear a mask in your place of business or anywhere else. That will be part of our order. Students or teachers will be able to wear a mask and we will protect that right. We know our schools will do a good job in protecting those students who want to wear a mask and those who do not … and will not allow them to be bullied.”

The state also will remove its vaccine verification requirement for large events as of March 1, Inslee said. The state’s requirement for masks at large, outdoor events ended Feb. 18.

The governor added that vaccines still provide strong protection against severe cases of COVID, and urged all eligible Washingtonians to get vaccinated — and boosted — against the virus.

“If you are not vaccinated, you have a 16 times more likely chance to be hospitalized by COVID,” Inslee said, showing a chart of hospitalizations for the disease among those fully vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated. “These vaccines work big time.”

Inslee and other state public health officials said Thursday that the pandemic will “still be with us” after March 21, and urged all Washingtonians to continue to take steps to protect themselves and their loved ones from the deadly virus.

“No human being can tell you where the end of COVID is,” Inslee said. “It appears it will be with us for some period of time, and we’ll have to learn to live with this disease. … COVID is not going to disappear … but we still have mechanisms to protect ourselves. Get vaccinated. Get the booster.”

Some people may still be required to wear a mask inside a certain business or facility after March 21, the governor added.

“We are removing the state mandate for masks, but we will not remove the ability for businesses or other entities to make their own independent decision to ask people to wear a mask,” Inslee said.