Supt. Carvalho confronts his first big decision: Should LAUSD relax mask requirements?
The Los Angeles Unified School District will keep its outdoor mask mandate in place for at least the rest of the week, even though county health officials allowed K-12 school systems to lift the requirement as of Wednesday, as new Supt. Alberto Carvalho weighs what could be his first significant decision.
Even as some districts are lifting outdoors mask rules, L.A. Unified, Carvalho said, is deliberating and soliciting expert advice before making its own decision early next week. School districts can opt to enforce mask rules that are more strict than those of Los Angeles County.
Carvalho knew masking would be front and center and preempted questions in opening remarks at his first news conference Wednesday as superintendent, calling it “the elephant in the room.”
“We rely on our medical experts,” Carvalho said before a phalanx of cameras during a morning visit to Fremont High School in South Los Angeles. “We are in a process of having additional conversations with medical entities that have advised this school system throughout the process. I am very confident that we will be in a position of making an announcement going into next week regarding the status of mask wearing on outdoor settings.”
The superintendent added that it was premature to discuss the parameters for lifting the indoor mask mandate, which is still required by the county.
It was a tricky opening challenge for the new schools chief, who came to L.A. after more than 13 years in charge of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest school system.
L.A. County announced the new mask guidelines last week, just as L.A. Unified’s leadership was in transition. It was also unclear whether the elected seven-member Board of Education is unified on the issue.
Board member Nick Melvoin has wanted the district to move in concert with the county.
“The district should have been prepared to make outdoor masking optional as soon as the county lifted its mandate,” Melvoin said. “LAUSD students shouldn’t have to wait any longer for this change to be implemented, and I will keep pushing for that to happen as soon as possible.”
Board member Jackie Goldberg recently expressed concern about the potential for a surge in cases related to the Super Bowl, which made her hesitate to relax the mask mandate.
United Teachers Los Angeles has not provided a specific response on outdoor masking. President Cecily Myart-Cruz said last week that “it would be premature to stop all masking at school sites while the virus is still widespread in our communities.”
Max Arias, who leads the union representing the largest number of nonteaching employees, said he wants his members to have “a voice in the process to ensure the ongoing safety of staff and students.”
In Miami, where Carvalho worked until last week, the state removed local discretion, forbidding mask mandates both for students and staff.
San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest school system, lifted its outdoor mask mandate as of Wednesday. Long Beach Unified has had no outdoor mandate for the entire school year even though it’s in L.A. County. That’s because Long Beach has its own health department — and that department imposed no mandate.
Carvalho said he was encouraged by the rapidly declining rate of coronavirus infections being recorded by the district’s weekly testing program, in which all students and staff are required to participate. That trend would allow for consideration of what the next steps should be, he said.
While the state requires all K-12 students and staff to wear masks indoors, L.A. County also had — until recently — required wearing them outdoors on campus, as well.
The state will reassess conditions at the end of the month before making a decision on school masking rules.
That changed early Wednesday morning, when the county relaxed that requirement outdoors at K-12 schools, including transitional kindergarten, and child-care facilities.
Students at Fremont High said they are ready to ditch masks — at least outdoors and especially for sports.
“I feel like for sports, especially outdoors, it gets really hot,” said senior America Duran. “And then indoors, it’s really stuffy.”
But removing masks, especially indoors, would be an adjustment: “Because although we were in class without masks previously, it feels like something new again, to just kind of like get used to.” And she would have some health concerns about unmasking indoors.
Senior Natalie Garcia is ready for the change.
“It would definitely be a relief,” she said, adding the masks are uncomfortable. “It’ll be really good if we could get it off of our faces the whole day. Most of the kids here are fully vaccinated, so they should be protected.”
Vocal parents have organized around entirely ending mask mandates for students throughout California. But there also are parents who feel differently, including volunteers at the Maywood Center for Enriched Studies, a Grade 6 through 12 school that Carvalho visited Wednesday.
People can go without face coverings outdoors, including at K-12 schools, childcare facilities and in exterior areas of ‘mega’ events.
Maria Contreras, who has children in 10th grade and kindergarten, would be comfortable ending the mandate for outside — if officials conclude that it is safe. But she still wants masks inside buildings.
“I’m very thankful that the district says that we need to wear masks, because the pandemic is still here so we need to protect our kids,” she said. “I know that they say that it’s already time to take them off, but every time when they come off, the pandemic starts hitting hard. So I think it’s better we’re still using it.”
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