A first school day without mask mandates, except in L.A., where teachers union is in talks

Two 8-year-olds, one with a mask, one without, work at their desks.
Third-graders, Alton Chan, left, and Caroline Kim work on assignments Monday at Tulita Elementary School in Redondo Beach, on the first day of optional masking in L.A. County. Masks are still required in L.A. Unified schools.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Across Los Angeles County and throughout California, students and teachers on Monday had the option to take their masks off in class or keep them on — and their decisions varied. A major exception was L.A. Unified, where a mask requirement remains in place and under negotiation with the teachers union.

For those with a choice, the end of mandates brought on a range of emotion and opinions — joy and relief, caution and uncertainty, or firm insistence on maintaining this most visible of safety measures.

It was largely masks-off for the young students at a Westside Catholic school and largely masks-on for students at Montebello High School. And it was masks-on for all in the state’s two largest school systems, L.A. Unified and San Diego Unified, although San Diego students can go mask-free on April 4.


It’s unclear what will happen at L.A. Unified, where Supt. Alberto Carvalho would like masks to be optional. Before his arrival, the Board of Education agreed to negotiate with the teachers union if it wanted to remove the requirement before the end of the school year. Negotiations began Friday and are scheduled to resume Wednesday. In the meantime, the union leadership is surveying members, a spokesperson said.

As with many pandemic issues, school masking evokes strong passions. A sizable number of L.A. Unified parents are frustrated — even livid — that L.A. Unified is not, in their view, “following the science” or “following the health department guidance.”

Health officials strongly recommend that students and school employees continue to wear masks, but the department also has removed the mandate — in line with policy at the state level. School districts are allowed to set their own policies — and health officials have defended L.A. Unified’s continued mandate.

An early February poll of registered voters in Los Angeles indicated that most Los Angeles parents favored required masking, but at the time there was more serious illness in the community.

County education officials are not tracking masking policy among the county’s 80 districts, but a spot check suggests that L.A. Unified is an outlier. Redondo Beach Unified is among many school systems to make masking optional.

Linda Hatakeyama left the choice to her son Jake, a senior at Redondo Union High School. He hates wearing a mask, especially while training and practicing for lacrosse, but had concerns about a teacher with a newborn.


Ultimately, Jake settled on wearing his mask near that teacher while not wearing it at other times. And he’s looking forward to those other times ahead, including a senior trip to Disney California Adventure — something his older brother missed because of the pandemic.

“It is very exciting,” Hatakeyama said. “I’m super appreciative of every single activity that they are able to do, from grad night, to senior prom. All of it.”

Redondo Union senior Gisselle Frisby said most students in her classes wore masks, but only one of four teachers, which disappointed her. She felt that the teachers should set an example and follow the county recommendation.

Surgical mask on, Gisselle navigated campus on Monday with an increased level of distress, knowing that some students who showed up without masks also were unvaccinated. She intends to remain masked for the rest of the school year, out of concern for her well-being and because her dad has a medical condition.

She, too, is looking forward to senior celebrations: “I just really hope that things can stay as they are right now, with low COVID cases, and we can continue to have those events.”

Masking has roiled communities and politics around the nation.

“Here in Ohio,” one parent emailed, “once the mask mandate was dropped a few weeks ago almost everyone (~95%) stopped wearing a mask. The ratio has not changed since then.”


But parents elsewhere reported much higher rates of voluntary mask use.

Over two-thirds of the “top 500” districts are now mask-optional, according to the media company Burbio, which tracks the issue. Within the last week, masking became optional in Philadelphia, Buffalo and St. Louis. It became optional Monday in Chicago, Baltimore and Seattle.

And family decisions that played out across the nation have now reached California.

“My son did not wear a mask today, and he reported about 75% of the kids chose not to as well,” a parent tweeted from Diegueño Middle School in Encinitas in San Diego County.

“According to my children, about half of their classmates chose to unmask,” said Suverna Mistry, whose third-grader and fifth-grader were unmasked in the Newhall School District in Santa Clarita Valley. “Both of their teachers were unmasked as well.”

Parent Jonathan Zachreson, a local leader of parent efforts to reopen campuses more quickly, praised the Roseville Joint Union High School District, northeast of Sacramento, for moving quickly to make masks optional.

“My kids have been out of masks since Feb. 15,” he tweeted.

Parent Cynthia Rojas said it appeared to her as though about 80% of students and parents were unmasked at Saint Mark, a Catholic school in Venice that serves students in transitional kindergarten through 8th grade. Her daughter, first-grader Shaye Jardim, said three of 18 students in her class wore masks, and they told her why. One had a cold; the second thought students were too close to each other, and the third just didn’t believe it was safe enough in general.

Not wearing a mask, “felt really fun because it felt like you were free,” she said.

Her brother, Nicholas Jardim, said his teacher started the day in a mask but then unmasked later in the day. It was a lot easier to hear what she was saying after that, he said.

The scene was different as students streamed out of Montebello High School on Monday; the vast majority wore masks, even outside on an unseasonably hot day.


Sophomore Nicole Ferrer said that, over the entire day, she saw only about five classmates and one teacher who did not wear masks.

“I honestly don’t care if other people don’t wear them,” Nicole said, but she’ll keep wearing hers.

Senior Janyne Salgado, who lost family members to COVID-19, said she feels safer in a mask, “especially now that I’ve gotten used to it. It would feel weird not having it on.”

Among her friends, she said, an argument broke out earlier in the day when one friend, who had previously been sick with COVID-19, insisted that another friend wear a mask.

“I understand — she’s scared,” Janyne said.

Times staff writer Luke Money contributed to this story.