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State’s mask stance frustrates San Diego school leaders, parents

Students of McAuliffe Elementary School in Oceanside Unified School District go to class in a line.
Students at McAuliffe Elementary School in Oceanside Unified School District make their way to class after arriving on campus in March 2020.
(Don Boomer / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

California is still requiring masks for everyone in K-12 schools, but it is leaving it up to educators to decide how to enforce that rule — a move that has sown confusion and complaints from San Diego superintendents and parents.

At least one local school district, Alpine Union, is choosing to make masks optional for students and staff this fall.

“I take the tack that I represent my community, and my community’s adamant about choice,” Alpine Supt. Rich Newman said.

Three other districts — Poway, Vista and Carlsbad Unified — are urging the state to change its policy to allow fully vaccinated people the choice of wearing a mask at school.

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Last Monday, the California Department of Public Health announced it would continue its policy of requiring masks for all students and staff in K-12 schools when indoors, regardless of whether they are vaccinated.

People with certain medical conditions may be allowed to wear a less restrictive alternative to a mask.

That differs from guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says masks are not needed in schools for those who are fully vaccinated.

Currently, only youth ages 12 and up can get the COVID-19 vaccine.

California is one of nine states with a universal mask mandate for schools, according to the website Burbio.

The state cited several reasons to keep a universal mask mandate: Coronavirus case rates are rising, the highly transmissible Delta variant is spreading, and students may be bullied or isolated for being vaccinated or unvaccinated.

Though masks are not required for vaccinated individuals in most public places in California, they are required in more vulnerable settings such as hospitals, community care facilities and public transportation. Los Angeles County, an exception, on Sunday began requiring people to wear masks in indoor public places.

As of Monday afternoon, the state’s rule said that if a student did not have a medical exemption and refused to wear a mask, the school must exclude the student from campus. As required by state law, all California schools must offer an independent study option this school year for students who want to learn remotely.

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Later on Monday, the state made a change in its mask mandate: It removed the requirement that noncompliant students be excluded from campus.

State officials removed it to clarify that “schools could continue enforcing the mask guidance as they have done for the past year,” said Alex Stack, spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

However, the state did not always leave enforcement up to schools; according to the state’s school COVID-19 guidance released in January, the state required schools to exclude noncompliant students from campus.

The change on Monday has left many local school district leaders unsure of how they’ll enforce the mask mandate.

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Some superintendents said they are upset the state once again is putting the burden on local leaders to figure out how to handle a public health problem. Last year, the state left it up to them to decide when to reopen schools.

“The state did their about-face on Monday, and I think that that really was unfortunate,” said Patrick Keeley, superintendent of Mountain Empire Unified. “First the state owned their position, and then later that evening put it all on the school districts, and that pits parents against school districts and I don’t think that’s right.”

When Mountain Empire was open for in-person instruction last school year, Keeley said there was not much resistance to wearing masks, as students were grateful to be in school at all.

But now the situation is different in that virtually everything is open, he said.

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“Forty-five thousand people can go to a Padre game without a mask on. … It sends a confusing message to the public,” Keeley said.

San Diego Unified, which had taken a slow approach to reopening campuses, “absolutely” supports the state’s school mask mandate, school board President Richard Barrera said.

“We think that’s the right approach,” he said. “We appreciate the state understanding that we don’t want to set up a situation at schools where some kids are wearing masks and others are not, and that might lead to students feeling ostracized or singled out or create a tension between students.”

Barrera said it’s better for school districts to decide how to enforce the mask mandate, rather than a state edict requiring that noncompliant students be excluded.

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San Diego Unified staff, for example, will work with parents personally to help them overcome their concerns about masks. Schools have successfully taught some students with disabilities how to wear a mask without needing a medical accommodation, he said.

“We actually are confident that by working with the parents directly, we’ll be able to figure out a way to overcome parent concerns and see the students actually come on campus,” Barrera said.

Experts also have different takes on masks in schools.

Kim Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC San Diego who studies aerosols, said vaccinated and unvaccinated people should still wear masks in schools.

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“As long as kids are still not vaccinated, yes, masks are critical in schools,” she said in an email.

Prather noted that the circulating Delta variant is much more transmissible than other variants, and local case rates are rising.

San Diego County’s coronavirus case rate per 100,000 residents has risen each of the last four weeks, from 1.6 on June 23 to 3.7 on Wednesday. The county has been reporting more than 200 new cases a day for the last week.

Virtually all the coronavirus cases have been among unvaccinated people.

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UC San Diego pediatrician Dr. Howard Taras said that, from a strictly medical perspective, it is “indeed safe” for vaccinated individuals to go without masks in schools. But actually implementing such a policy is not practical, he said.

Taras said it would be difficult for school staff to know which unmasked students are vaccinated and which ones are just not following the rules. If unvaccinated students don’t wear masks in school they can spread the coronavirus to others, even if they aren’t likely to become sick themselves, he said.

Universal masking also frees schools from having to rely on more restrictive COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as physical distancing, keeping students in fixed groupings, and quarantining when someone tests positive, Taras said. All of those could limit a school’s ability to provide full-time in-person learning for all students or otherwise affect students’ academics.

Some parents unhappy with the mask mandate said they would rather keep their kids home in online learning than send them to school this fall with masks.

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That includes Rita Sanford, a parent of an eighth-grader and a 10th-grader in San Diego Unified School District, who said she kept her kids home in distance learning last spring because she didn’t want them to wear masks.

“I’m finding doctor after doctor speaking out against masking children in schools because of the masks’ effect on their emotional, social, physical and academic health,” Sanford said.

Some San Diego-area parents have organized an advocacy group called Let Them Breathe that is calling for an end to the mask mandate in schools.

“I believe [masks] are detrimental to our youth and their overall health and well-being,” said Kandice Judson, a Let Them Breathe administrator and parent of a 5-year-old who will start in the Solana Beach School District this fall. “It’s important for them to be able to breathe freely and really get that whole fresh breath of air, without that air being filtered through germ-filled masks.”

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Christa Gallego, a parent of three children in the Del Mar Union and San Dieguito Union High school districts, doesn’t think masks should be done away with entirely.

She agrees with experts that unvaccinated people should still have to wear masks in school. But vaccinated people shouldn’t have to, she said.

Gallego’s 12-year-old son got vaccinated, but because he’s still required to wear a mask, that takes a toll on his extracurricular activities such as theater, acting and singing, she said. Masking also has made it difficult for her son, who was new to the school district last year, to make social connections with other kids, she said.

“Everywhere else” kids are hanging out, they aren’t required to wear masks, she added.

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“That was the purpose of vaccinating him at 12, so he would be able to have these freedoms,” Gallego said. “If we’re following the science, then vaccinated kids shouldn’t have to wear masks.”

Carlsbad Unified Supt. Ben Churchill said that because his district has several other safety measures in place, such as upgraded filtration systems and smaller class sizes, and because Carlsbad has high community vaccination rates and low case rates, it’s reasonable to allow vaccinated individuals to go without masks.

Newman, the Alpine superintendent, said he doesn’t believe his schools need masks because Alpine is a small, non-transient district where 99% of school staff are vaccinated and where coronavirus transmission rates are low.

“We’re not required to wear a mask in restaurants, sporting events, grocery stores, virtually anywhere you go,” Newman said. “There’s an inconsistency. And our parents want choice.”

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State officials said they will reevaluate their school mask policy in early November.


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