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In L.A. Unified, some masks come off; others keep wearing them

Two students, one in a mask, read in class at Pomelo Community Charter School.
Students Joshua Martinez, left, and Alyssa Stein read in class at Pomelo Community Charter School on March 23 in West Hills. Wednesday was the first day that L.A. Unified students were no longer required to wear a mask indoors.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Elba Serrano’s four grandchildren were talking excitedly about a milestone event — for the first time since the start of the pandemic they had the option to attend class in a Los Angeles public school without wearing a mask.

But at morning drop-off, they decided to take their masks with them. They would keep wearing them — at least for now — to be on the safe side.

Similar decisions played out Wednesday across the L.A. Unified School District.

Marvin Jones was dropping off his children at the same school as Serrano, Pomelo Community Charter in West Hills.

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“We will wear a mask when it’s mandatory and when it becomes optional, then we are going to do that on a day-to-day basis,” said Jones, who was wearing a mask.

So was 9-year-old Kellan: “It’s like kind of a habit now. Also, it feels like it keeps you more safe.” But not 6-year-old Cade, who complained that wearing a mask makes it harder to breathe.

The path to a mask-optional day was cleared when members of the teachers union approved the new policy by a margin of 84% to 16% in results announced Monday night. Masking decisions are now up to the families of some 450,000 students and 60,000-plus employees.

“It’s awesome,” said parent Jason Guerrero. “My daughter’s been complaining about it all year long, that she’s having trouble breathing in class, playing on the playground with it. So today, she was actually pretty excited.”

Breanne, 6, flashed her newly visible gap-toothed grin and dashed inside.

At Nava Learning Academy in South L.A., the scenario was different for Irma Jimenez as she dropped off her 11-year-old to the middle school. Without question, he wanted to wear his mask.

A campus aide checks student health screening forms at Nava Learning Academy.
Campus aide Omar Sifuentes, in yellow vest, checks the health screening forms, called a daily pass, of arriving students at Nava Learning Academy in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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“He’s scared of COVID,” Jimenez said. Both she and her son have asthma, and her mother died of COVID-19. “For me, it’s better that they have masks on.”

Inside Nava classrooms, most students wore masks. The high rate of mask-wearing likely has to do with how hard the pandemic hit the low-income community, causing widespread illness and death, Principal Rafael Alvarez said.

Even when the outdoor masking mandate lifted a few weeks ago, Alvarez said, the vast majority, more than 80%, kept them on outside.

Some students, he added, have opted to keep masks on because they are shy or have acne, he said, similar to how they like to wear oversized hoodies.

“The main thing for us is we want to make sure that everyone’s decision is honored,” Alvarez said.

Eighth-grader Valery Rivas, who got sick with COVID-19, is keeping her mask on: “I’ve gotten used to wearing a mask to the point where if I take it off, I kind of feel a little uncomfortable.”

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Latoya Moriley told her sons Joshua, a Nava sixth-grader, and Jacob, a ninth-grader at Jefferson High School, that they needed to keep masks on.

“This is not over with yet,” said Moriley, who would have preferred for the mandate to remain. She and her sons became ill with COVID-19 in January despite being vaccinated. “I think they moved a little too fast,” she said of district officials.

Arnold Angulo, a Nava teacher, told his seventh-grade geography class students — all 24 wearing masks — that he, too, would continue to wear one after hearing about the newest variant.

At Pomelo, in middle-class West Hills, second-grade teacher Marisa Carpentieri had happily discarded her mask.

“I think it’s important to making sure the students can see the teacher’s face,” she said. “One of the modalities is visual, especially teaching reading. So it has been very difficult to try to teach with all the modalities if they cannot see your face.”

Five of 17 students wore masks, a sixth had her mask entirely below her chin. Overall, students seemed almost oblivious as to who was masking or not.

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In an email, Joel Delman said his sons will not be wearing masks “except under particular circumstances when not wearing one would make another person uncomfortable.”

“One of my sons’ teachers has commented throughout the year that she is highly immunocompromised, and he does not want to make the teacher feel in any way unsafe,” said Delman, whose children attend the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies in Mid-City.

Students and parents arrive to school in Los Angeles wearing face coverings.
Students and parents arrive to school in Los Angeles wearing face coverings. Wednesday was the first day that L.A. Unified students were no longer required to wear a mask indoors.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday that he’s trying to balance the vital voices of parents on both sides of the issue with science-based information.

He added: “I’m pleased we were able to reach a rational decision on this.”

Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.

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