As some parents protest school mask mandates, experts urge students to keep face coverings on
As California’s students return to the classroom, some parents are pushing back against mask mandates intended to keep their kids safe against the spread of the coronavirus.
In Chino this week, dozens of demonstrators gathered on a downtown sidewalk waving signs emblazoned with slogans like “Let them breathe” and “Our children, our choice.” In Amador County, a parent allegedly assaulted a teacher over face-covering rules on the first day of school.
Both actions were in apparent opposition to directives from local school districts that mirror the state’s mandatory mask rules for all students in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
But the opposition also arrives amid a COVID-19 surge fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, which has seen a growing number of young people testing positive for the virus.
A report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicated the number of infections among children nationwide increased last week to 94,000 from around 39,000 just two weeks prior — a 143% jump in new cases.
The AAP has strongly recommended universal masking in schools, particularly since a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines, which are currently approved for people 12 and older.
“Masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated,” the organization said. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”
Instead of a back-to-normal back-to-school, the coronavirus casts new shadows over the return to full-time, in-person schooling.
Parents in the Chino Valley Unified School District received a notification last week confirming that all students and adults must wear masks while indoors, in accordance with the California Department of Public Health guidelines.
Students with verified medical exemptions are able to submit requests for exceptions to the district’s health services team, the notification said. Masks are optional outdoors.
For some parents, that wasn’t enough.
“As a mom, I want what’s best for my kids, but I want them to know it’s important to be able to choose for yourself,” one protester told KTLA.
While some parents said their opposition was based on concerns about social growth and overheating, many told the outlet that it was about choice.
“It’s about respect, and it’s about a parent’s right to choose what’s right for their kids,” one woman said.
Officials with the school district declined to comment about the protest, with spokeswoman Andrea Johnston stating that administrators were “just focusing on the students and making sure that we’re able to start the school year and give them that sense of normalcy.”
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Meanwhile, parents in the Amador County Unified School District were informed Thursday of the assault on a teacher in a letter from Supt. Torie Gibson. She wrote that a parent engaged in a “serious physical altercation” with a teacher after getting into a verbal argument with the principal at an elementary school.
Reached by phone Friday, Gibson confirmed that the parent had been upset about face masking requirements. She also said parents in the district have been divided by the mandate.
“It’s very polarized, pretty much just like everywhere else,” she said. “There’s just no middle ground: Either people are super supportive of it and have no issues with it, or they’re completely, adamantly against it.”
She urged parents to remember that the school’s staff members are not the ones making the mandates, and noted that schools must follow and enforce the rules in order to keep their doors open.
“We have worked overtime to educate our kids, and people just have to take a breath,” Gibson said. “They just have to let us keep kids safe.”
In August, K-12 students will return to school. For many districts, summer school has provided a preview of classroom life with mask mandates.
Dr. Larry Kociolek, a pediatric infectious diseases physician-scientist at Northwestern University, said there is no convincing evidence that masks are harmful to students, and emphasized that face masks can help keep kids in schools.
“With the exception of vaccination, masking is the most effective risk mitigation strategy for schools,” Kociolek said. “Lifting that — particularly in areas with substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 — will undoubtedly result in more transmission in schools.”
Kociolek also said that remote learning has been linked to poor outcomes for students, and said that any steps that can be taken to make schools safe, including masking and screening, should be taken to prevent kids from having to return to virtual classes.
“Currently, masking is the best tool we have to maintain in-person instruction, which is in the best interest of all children,” he said.
The variant’s ability to spread among the vaccinated is worrisome, experts said, but it shouldn’t preclude kids from heading back to school.
Parents in Chino and Amador aren’t the only ones pushing back against the face coverings — despite what pediatricians say is a notable increase in coronavirus infections and COVID-19 hospitalizations among young children.
The San Ramon Valley Unified School board shut down a meeting this month after shouting parents swarmed the room in opposition to masks, while parents in Brentwood and Vista have organized similar protests against the requirements.
The Orange County School Board last week voted to sue Gov. Gavin Newsom over the requirement, calling the governor’s use of emergency decrees a violation of “constitutional and statutory law.”
But public health officials have repeatedly said universal masking remains an important line of defense against the surging Delta variant, with L.A. County reinstating mask requirements only a month after removing them due to rising case rates.
And while vaccines continue to provide the most protection against the virus — case rates among the unvaccinated are six times higher than that of the vaccinated in California — the vaccines are not yet approved for many school-age children.
One recent report found that without masking in schools, more than 75% of children could be infected with the coronavirus within three months.
Schools that implement mitigation strategies like masking and weekly testing could reduce that number to 20%, researchers said.
The LAUSD order is stricter than a state mandate that school staff be either vaccinated or regularly tested for coronavirus
Dr. Eric Ball, a pediatrician at Children’s Health of Orange County Primary Care Network, said recently that a “Swiss cheese model” of layered protection will be the best bet for keeping kids safe.
“We’re talking about vaccination and mask wearing and sanitation and testing and distancing,” he said. “When you add all of those up, you’ll build up those protections, and hopefully make it safer for the kids to go to school.”
California this week became the second state in the nation to impose a vaccine mandate for all school staff, with officials touting the move as another means to help protect students. Teachers and staff have until Oct. 15 to comply, officials announced Friday.
Students in Chino Valley and Amador returned to school this week. The Los Angeles Unified School District will resume classes on Monday.
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