The next step for schools is under discussion as indoor masking is set to ease on Feb. 15 in many settings in California.
Educators and families are bracing for another round of pandemic policy shifts as California officials weigh when to lift mask mandates for schools — with some eagerly calling for students and staff to unmask and others urging caution.
A general easing of rules is set for Feb. 15 — when California is poised to lift mask mandates for vaccinated residents in indoor public places. The rules would not immediately affect Santa Cruz County until officials modify their health order. Local health orders on COVID-19 safety measures are allowed to be more strict than state guidelines.
But state officials did not announce what will happen in schools — a growing tension point among some parents — and local school officials were left speculating about what new rules will be handed down in what has been a long saga of shifting school pandemic policies.
Currently, the state requires all K-12 students and staff to wear masks indoors. But the school mandates across the country are beginning to loosen. Just this week, officials in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon also announced timelines for relaxing mask requirements for schools.
Some school superintendents support lifting the mandate — provided that the available science supports it.
“This would be welcome news to many students and families,” said Superintendent Alex Cherniss of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District. “Those students and staff who would want to continue to wear masks could, of course, do so. It sure seems like the next logical move for all sectors and would tremendously benefit education, provided that COVID positivity rates continue their decline.”
Las Virgenes Unified Superintendent Dan Stepenosky said he would “strongly support a reconsideration and relaxation of the masking requirements for schools.”
“We have to continue to evolve our thinking and approach to the pandemic,” said Stepenosky, whose school system straddles the border between L.A. and Ventura counties. “Vaccines have been available for some time now and the metrics on the latest surge are dropping dramatically.”
“Another idea,” he added: “Schools with vax rates over 65% can relax masks.”
Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg was hesitant to move quickly.
“I would still keep the mask mandate indoors, but would consider relaxing masks outdoors — if 80% of the students are vaccinated at that school,” said Goldberg, who also was concerned about the potential for the upcoming Super Bowl in Los Angeles to spread infection.
“Nobody likes masks,” she added, “but COVID-19 is not disappearing, and there is no way to avoid close contact in most classrooms.”
Board member Nick Melvoin is ready to go somewhat further.
“Given everything we have learned about how the virus spreads and the rapid decline in cases we’re seeing, I hope that updated guidance will allow the district to remove the outdoor masking requirement,” Melvoin said.
He said he also wanted to see consistent guidelines from state, county and district officials, “so there is less confusion and whiplash for families.”
The health of communities should be the top priority, said Lynwood Unified Superintendent Gudiel R. Crosthwaite.
“The wearing of masks at Lynwood Unified has been an important safety measure for our district and one that we’ve emphasized upon returning to campuses this calendar year,” Crosthwaite said. “KN95 masks have been distributed to staff, with each district employee receiving an ongoing 10-day supply, while medical-grade blue masks have been distributed to all school sites for students.”
For Encinitas parent Jennifer Harris, unmasking could not come soon enough.
“I firmly support the ability of parents to make the best decision for their children, both for masking and for vaccination,” Harris said. “My children’s social, emotional and academic needs have been harmed by forced masking imposed by the state of California.”
And there’s no doubt about the position of San Diego County parent Sharon McKeeman, who has spearheaded litigation to halt student mask mandates. So far these efforts have not succeeded.
“Freeing students’ smiles is long overdue,” she said Monday.
But Los Angeles parent Jenna Schwartz said it would be a mistake to assume that all or even most parents felt this way.
“While the anti-mask contingency is a loud group,” she said she believes “the overwhelming number of parents still support mask mandates, and I suspect we will see some opposition to lifting the outdoor mandate,” let alone the mandate to wear masks indoors.
Schwartz moderates the site Parents Supporting Teachers, in which the voices on such topics span a broad range of views.
It remains to be seen where unions representing teachers and other school employees will come down on easing masking rules. United Teachers Los Angeles had no immediate comment. Nor did Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents the largest number of nonteaching campus workers in L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system.
Santa Monica-Malibu schools Superintendent Ben Drati has heard from pro-mask and anti-mask camps.
“We are aware that our parents have mixed feelings about this move,” Drati said. “We have many parents requesting that we maintain our strict protocols and others who are urging us to discontinue masking of staff and students as quickly as possible.”
He added: “We have been discussing off-ramping strategies with our leadership team and our school board, and we are following this state announcement very closely. We look forward to the day we can see the smiling faces of our students and staff again.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.