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The new state school mask rule doesn’t faze many students. It’s ‘second nature’ now

Students wearing masks in a classroom
Kemani English, right, and other students wear masks in Adrian Sandoval’s English 2 class at Hawthorne High School.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Some high school students take “mask breaks” and go outside for gulps of unfiltered air. They are irked by the beads of sweat on their upper lip in the heat, but nothing that a quick swipe can’t handle. They have learned to talk louder in class. A student sitting at her desk plans for a drink of water — mask down, sip, mask up. And sports conditioning while masked? Exhausting yet better than sitting at home.

As California begins to return to fully reopened campuses this month for in-person learning, the state’s mandatory mask rule will continue to be part of the new normal for all K-12 schools, which join a growing list of counties and public places that require indoor masking amid the COVID-19 surge fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant.

If past months and the first days of the new year are any indication of how students are dealing with the latest coronavirus school rule, many say they are largely over it. They have adjusted to the discomfort and would much rather be in school with their friends than at home on a computer.

“It’s become like second nature in a sense,” said Deven Allen, 17, an incoming senior at Lawndale High School. “You kind of can’t leave the house without a mask. You kind of feel naked without it.”

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On Monday, the San Bernardino Unified School District welcomed its students back to school, and at Kimbark Elementary School, the first day after more than a year of remote learning featured music, balloons and emotions, said Carissa Raia, who dropped off her 8-year-old for the third grade. She said her child’s excitement to be back at school snuffed out any complaints.

“I feel like the kids are more used to it. It’s the parents that are freaking out,” Raia said, noting that her 12-year-old, who started seventh grade, has also become accustomed to wearing masks. “It’s not that big of a deal for us.”

Although the mandate has drawn resistance in some areas from parents who are advocating for “mask choice,” for many students it appears the transition to masks in schools has been smooth.

Among older students, masks are hardly debated, Allen said, adding that he played in club volleyball tournaments and practices with a mask on. There are times, he said, when he’s tempted to pull down his mask and gulp in some air — but he reminds himself that the pandemic is still ongoing.

Instead, he steps outside, where he can take his mask off. Plus, he discovered an upside over the months: The time spent training with a mask on has helped his stamina.

“I think it’ll be easier to play in a mask because I already have experience,” Deven said. He also picked up a summer job at McDonald’s, where he has adjusted to long hours of masking.

About 1,200 summer school students who returned to campuses in the Centinela Valley Union High School District, which includes Lawndale High. Their new school reality over the summer and into the new year also means flashing proof of coronavirus screening before entering campus.

A school safety officer in a uniform with a badge views the screen of a student's phone. Both wear masks.
Centinela Valley Union High School District Safety Officer Raymond Tiger checks the mobile COVID-19 screening of Hawthorne High School student Dannisha Northern.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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At Centinela Valley Union High, the district has had no issues with mask enforcement, Supt. Stephen Nellman said. “The kids have been great. They’re totally compliant,” Nellman said. “We don’t expect it to be any different in the fall, even with a full classroom.”

Wearing face coverings for long school days can be uncomfortable, but most students seem to have adapted quickly, just as they did to other activities complicated by the pandemic, including shopping and eating out.

Ana Santana, an incoming senior at Hawthorne High, is not a big fan of masks, especially on hot days. But distance learning was a far worse alternative.

On a recent day, Ana and her classmates followed along in class as their teacher guided them through a math problem on a whiteboard. When it gets too stuffy, she just pulls down her mask to wipe away any sweat, she said.

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“You just need to know to keep your mask on and to keep your distance,” Ana said. “Since it’s been a year with masks on, I feel like most kids understand.”

In April, Eliana Walls, an incoming senior at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, led guided walking tours for incoming students and sophomores.

Masked students, many in close proximity, sit at desks arranged in a U shape
Students are masked in Peter Chau’s summer school English class at Hawthorne High.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

For nearly eight hours, Eliana said, she kept her mask on as she led students around the sprawling campus that serves nearly 4,000 students. When she needed some fresh air, she said, she would just tug her mask down, take deep breaths and move on. And after attending in-person summer school, she said, she’s ready to go back full time.

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“Those couple of days that I did go to summer school kind of helped me get into the groove of things,” Eliana said. “If everybody is doing their job and is staying safe, then, no, I’m not concerned.”

Orlando Arias-Pulido, an incoming sophomore at Ganesha High School in Pomona, said he is excited about returning to school, knowing that he is vaccinated. But because COVID-19 can still spread among vaccinated groups, he said, he’s concerned about classmates who typically don’t follow school rules who may flout safety measures.

“I feel more safe knowing that the state is requiring all students to wear masks,” the 15-year-old said. “If you go to Universal [Studios], they ask us to wear masks to all indoor rides.”

But the state directive has led to protests by activists at school board meetings and challenges from some school officials, who say masks have a negative emotional effect on students and create a barrier for them to connect with their peers. A San Diego parent group is suing the state in an effort to overturn the statewide school mask mandate.

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A woman and girl hold signs reading "Unmask our kids" and "Make masks optional."
Members of Let Them Breathe, an anti-mask group, protest at the Redondo Beach Unified School District building.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In Redondo Beach last Tuesday, the group Let Them Breathe organized a rally to stir parents and students to speak at a school board meeting. They clustered together on the sidewalk, holding signs and eliciting honks from drivers. One woman drove by and told them they were “overreacting.”

Redondo Beach parent Monet Castañeda said he’s advocating for mask choice at the K-5 level.

His 16-year-old, a rising junior, will probably go back to school masked. But his 10-year-old son, Logan, may not. Logan, who attended the rally, said he found it hard to focus with the mask on when he went back to school in the spring. “I can’t concentrate properly,” he said. “It’s annoying.”

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Castañeda said he would rather have Logan home-schooled than attend school in a mask.

Sharon McKeeman, a Carlsbad parent and founder of the group, joined Redondo Beach parents. McKeeman asked for donations to continue the legal battle to overturn the mandate. A timely favorable outcome, she said, could make masking optional for children before the start of the fall semester.

“We are going to go as far as we have to with this,” McKeeman said. “If I have to take this to the Supreme Court, I will do that.”

A masked student writes on a whiteboard
Patrick Ugwuezumba completes an extra credit math problem on the board at Hawthorne High School.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Patrick Ugwuezumba, an incoming senior at Hawthorne High, readily admits that he doesn’t like wearing masks. While conditioning for sports, he said, they have to wear masks indoors.

But during a lesson in his integrated math 2 summer course, Patrick took up an extra credit opportunity to work out a problem in front of the class. As he explained his process, his voice, while slightly muffled, was clear enough to earn him the extra credit.

“I don’t like it,” Patrick said of masks, “but if it’s going to keep me safe, and other people safe, I might as well wear it.”


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