Masked youths help fill sand bags and place them at the Pioneer Park Aviary on Friday to shore up areas of the pond bank that have eroded. The effort was part of a three-day Serve Weekend by LIFE Church in a dozen locations in Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater. Local school districts are considering how to handle various requirements for face coverings as the school year approaches.

When schools reopen this fall, it will not be a full return to normal life.

In Washington, as in Oregon and many other states, social-distancing rules will mandate that students stay at least 6 feet from each other. Unlike in Oregon, however, Washington schools will also require that students wear face coverings.

Local school leaders say this is cause for concern among some parents. Some have even suggested they may hold their children out of school if masks are required.

“It has been brought up,” College Place School District Superintendent Jim Fry said.

Fry and other school leaders in the area want parents to know that whether students will be required to wear masks is not a local decision.

“The bottom line is we are a public school district, and we are required to follow the guidelines set forth by the state,” Fry said.

“We had a community meeting the other night online, and I said, ‘This is not about red and blue, left or right. This is about what is required to get our students back to learning.’ So we will do what is necessary.”

Dayton School District Superintendent Guy Strot expressed similar sentiments.

“The fact is, I am bound by state law,” said Strot, who started in his role at the Dayton district just this month. “So if the governor says everyone is going to wear masks, then everyone is going to wear masks.”

In Walla Walla, Superintendent Wade Smith said he has heard from parents on both sides of the issue.

“While we have had some parents express concerns over the recently announced state mandate that most students may be required to wear masks come fall,” Smith said, “many more have communicated that they are glad these added safety precautions have been considered by state authorities.”

The original set of guidelines released by Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal stated that all students must wear masks. However, revisions of the document relax these requirements slightly and allow face shields to be worn instead. Strot sees this as a positive.

“I think a face shield is less intrusive and easier to wear than masks,” Strot said. “You know, if you are a kindergartner, it’s tough to wear a mask all day. It just is.”

Fry, in College Place, also said face shields are a good option for parents not wanting their children to wear a mask.

“We’re actually building face shield for students,” Fry said. “That’s an option for students. They can wear the plastic face shield instead. And if they are still opposed to that, then we can offer the at-home remote learning.”

The remote-learning program Fry referred to was created primarily for students who are unable to return to school this fall due to health concerns. Walla Walla and Dayton will have similar programs, and their superintendents also stated students whose parents are concerned about masks can opt in to these offerings.

“If student masks/face coverings remain required when we start school in the fall, and select families remain concerned over the expectation, Walla Walla schools has already developed a full-time, online program that will offer families the opportunity to continue learning from home through a comprehensive online learning platform staffed by Walla Walla teachers,” Smith said.

In Oregon, while face coverings are required for teachers and staff, they will not be required for students. And although individual districts are free to require them, many — such as the Athena-Weston School District — have opted not to.

“We put out a survey and parents said, ‘Thank you, we would not have sent our kids if you made them wear masks,’” Superintendent Laure Quaresma said.

“But then there’s the opposite side. We had parents say, ‘We plan on sending our kids, but they are going to wear masks.’ They want their kids safe, and we understand that. We will support that. We are not going to allow kids to be teased for wearing masks.”

Jeremy Burnham can be reached at jeremyburnham@wwub.com or 509-551-8896.


Jeremy Burnham covers education and Columbia County for the Union-Bulletin. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, where he studied journalism, and is an Eastern Eagle fanatic.