Quick Take:

Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah says Santa Cruz County parents are bullying teachers, upsetting staff and filing claims against school districts for enforcing mask mandates. Parents have bombarded schools with hundreds of “threatening messages” and angry emails and have had heated, in-person exchanges with teachers and office staff. How tough a response are the schools mounting? Sabbah describes it in detail.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah wants parents to stop harassing his staff over COVID-19 protocols. He calls the stress teachers currently face in schools “high” and says parents are partly to blame. Teachers, he says, are afraid to use their names or come forward publicly with stories of harassment because they fear being targeted.

Signature Q&A graphic for Faris Sabbah Story

The problems, he said, peaked in late January after viral images of Gov. Gavin Newsom posing maskless at an NFL playoff game circulated. The stadium required masks and Newsom offered weak excuses for why he took his mask off when he posed for a photo and while watching the game. Parents who opposed the state’s in-school mask mandates seized the images as ammunition against schools.

Scotts Valley, Sabbah says, has seen a particularly high volume of parental complaints, including “dozens” of threatening messages, many of which school staff and teachers received and had to answer. The problems echo those faced by schools and school boards across the state; parents who disagree with state health mandates are taking their frustrations out on the teachers and staff charged with enforcing them. Parents insist their children are missing valuable social and academic lessons by having their faces covered. Teachers say they are just trying to do their jobs and keep everyone healthy.

Parents from several of the largest school districts in the county — Scotts Valley Unified, Santa Cruz City Schools and Pajaro Valley Unified School District — have filed claims against the schools for “damage” to their children, Sabbah says. The parental complaints have accelerated in the past three weeks, he says, and seem to be “coordinated.” The claims — in the form of government 910 claim forms — are the first step in filing a lawsuit against the state. Anyone who wants to sue the state or its employees has to begin by filing a claim. Sabbah dismisses the claims as frivolous and says that mask mandates will end at the end of the week.

Lookout talked with Sabbah in his office.

Why are you discussing this now, just a few days before mask mandates are set to end?

I think it’s important for the community to know the pressures that a lot of the front-line schools, staff and teachers are experiencing. I think that this pandemic has had a deep impact on the school community and our students. And, because of the nature of threats of litigation, and a lot of the bullying activity that front-line staff are experiencing, they’re not likely to talk about what they’re experiencing, because they’re afraid of being targeted even more by folks. And so I feel it is important for the community to hear that this is going on. And also to remind us that sometimes we get caught up in advocating for something and we lose sight of the fact that the means that we’re using to do it are actually really destructive and not in any way supporting whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish. The stress that our school administrators, teachers, office staff are experiencing is extremely high.

Can you share examples of these incidents?

Things really, really peaked over the winter break. After the pictures of the governor and other folks not wearing masks at the playoff game, there were hundreds of calls that were made to school sites with messages — threatening messages. Scotts Valley is one of those school districts that received dozens of those calls. And there were threats of being sued and these were answered by school staff, office staff, district staff. There was kind of an amplification of this and so we’re talking to school districts, we’re talking to principals, and they’re telling us this is getting out of hand; this is really, really stressful for us.

We had one parent who was leaving their child at school and refusing to pick them up at a school site. The parent was making the choice to send their child to school without a mask, to refuse to put on a mask. Our practice throughout the county is we ask you to please put on a mask. If you choose not to, we call your parents and ask you to get picked up and be taken home. So this parent [of the Scotts Valley Unified School District] would either not pick up their child or they threatened lawsuits and basically said, I’m not going to pick up my child. This is just an example of the different situations, whether it’s phone calls, emails, direct contact that people are having. And much of that was happening at the school sites.

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

How is the County Office of Education responding to the complaints and concerns of teachers, principals and other education officials?

Our job as administrators is really to get those kinds of negative interactions away from students first — and away from our staff as much as possible. Principals continue to intervene to try to make sure that if those negative interactions are happening in the hallways, and the front offices, that they’re not happening in ways that can create a hostile environment for others.

We’re continuing to provide communication to our superintendents, giving them a heads-up about what’s happening. … I think that part of our job is to respond. We’re a public organization and so we have to respond to folks who are sharing their frustrations.

What else have community members done to cause problems for teachers, staff and schools?

The other thing that the folks have been doing is filing what are called government 910 forms. When you feel like a government agency is not doing something they should be doing, like they’re breaking the rules, you have to notify them. And so, one of the coordinated approaches that has been happening, especially in the last three weeks, has been people asking for a copy of the government 910 form for the school district. People fill it out saying whatever it is that the school is doing is causing damages. So it’s kind of in anticipation of a tort claim. And in this case, the parents are claiming that schools asking children to mask is a discriminatory practice. And so many of the school districts have received these government 910 claims.

I’ve seen [910 forms submitted] for [several] of the school districts, the larger school districts — Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz City Schools, Pajaro Valley Unified School District [are among those who] have received them. We at the County Office of Education have received them as well. And so, much of the information contained within the government 910 forms filed by parents contains similar backup information. The content seems like it’s kind of a coordinated effort. And the threat of lawsuits is also one of the things that we get through emails and voicemails on an ongoing basis.

Do the claims have any basis?

The information from our attorneys is that these claims really have no substance. In fact, if we didn’t follow the health code and the guidance that we’re required to by the [California Department of Public Health], we would actually be in violation of the law. So none of these claims that it’s a discriminatory practice have substance. We’re adhering to policies. Regarding a lot of this paperwork and the cease-and-desist letter that we received from this one attorney, our attorneys have have told us that, we basically just have to notify folks we’re following CDPH guidance, as we’re required to do, as every single school district is required to do, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

Teachers’ union presidents from Live Oak and Santa Cruz City Schools districts say they are not aware of a rising number of incidents in their districts. Is this escalation of incidents limited to certain districts and areas in the county?

I think that it is definitely more common in certain areas than in other areas. … I know that all the district offices have experienced it as well. … There’s definitely different kinds of experiences taking place in different parts of our community. … There was recently a situation where police were called to a South County school site due to a parent disruption.

After Friday, wearing a mask indoors at schools will no longer be required and instead will become a recommendation. How are county officials planning for the shifting guidance?

We have a robust testing process in our schools. We’re testing between 4,000 and 6,000 students and staff a day. So we have a lot of really good data and we get the results within 24 hours. We’re able to see any increases that could take place in our schools. We’re right now between 1% and 2% in terms of a positivity rate. If those numbers start increasing, we will be working with public health officials to implement masking again and possibly other mitigation strategies.

One thing that is a challenge, is that with the March 11 deadline, we’re supposed to receive new K-12 updates, including those metrics, but also new guidelines for how we’re going to deal with quarantine isolation and response to symptomatic people. And those guidelines are going to impact how we respond. So we need those state guidelines as quickly as possible so we can provide them to our schools. Every school district to my knowledge has decided masking will be highly recommended, but not required. Again, we will be looking to follow the new state guidelines as soon as they’re available to us.

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to reflect which county schools districts parents have filed claims against.

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...