After initially mandating a ban on unmasked students on campus, the state is now leaving enforcement decisions up to local officials.
California will embrace one of the nation’s most stringent school mask mandates next fall, but is leaving enforcement to local educators, who are proposing a range of consequences for students who don’t follow the rule — such as issuing warnings or barring them from campus. Some even suggested they may ignore the order because they don’t believe it’s needed.
The state’s hands-off position on enforcement comes after several days of rapidly evolving policy announcements at the state and federal level.
The movement was especially swift on Monday, when state officials mandated that students who refuse to wear masks be prohibited from campus. Hours later, the enforcement rule was deleted, and the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom said enforcement would be left to local education officials.
School administrators must now contemplate how to keep students and staff in line, especially as vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in many other situations.
Adding to concerns are increasing coronavirus infections from the Delta variant — and the knowledge that students younger than 12 are ineligible for vaccines and not all older students are getting inoculated.
The Los Angeles Unified School District intends to enforce a mask mandate — in the spring, administrators did not hesitate to send home students who refused to submit to a coronavirus test. But in Glenn County, in Northern California, Hamilton Unified Supt. Jeremy Powell said he is opposed to the rule.
“As a public educational leader, I can not continue enforcing policies not only I do not support but rather feel are bordering on child abuse,” Powell wrote Monday on Twitter.
On Tuesday, Newsom suggested he was personally involved in the rapid removal of the language about barring students without masks from campus.
“All I did was clarify the local responsibility, which is consistent with all the prior rule-making that’s been in effect going back to last year,” the governor said at a Los Angeles appearance. The lack of specifics on enforcement aligns with what the state was doing “last year and last quarter,” he added. “As it relates to enforcement, it’s always been the local responsibility.”
The underlying goal of California’s rule, he emphasized, is to get all students back on campus for full-time, in-person instruction: “We made that crystal clear.”
Despite the abrupt change, the mandate puts California among the states with the strictest mask policies.
According to a tracker from the online platform Burbio: nine states, including California, will start the school year with mask requirements for all in schools; eight states, including Texas, specifically prohibit mask mandates in schools; three states, including Michigan, mandate masks among the unvaccinated; the remainder provide varying degrees of local flexibility.
When the state rules came out on Monday, some school officials praised the original language that unmasked students must be barred from campus. Others chafed at the stricture.
By Tuesday, education leaders faced a more nuanced situation, where they would have to explain their local policy on enforcing masking to constituents.
The Capistrano Unified School District, in San Juan Capistrano, requires masks indoors but not outdoors, which aligns with state and federal authorities.
Students who refuse to wear a mask receive a warning, said communications officer Ryan Burris. After the fourth violation, an elementary-aged student will be reassigned to remote instruction. Secondary students are reassigned after the third violation.
The district provides extra cloth and disposable masks at schools. That lines up with state and federal guidelines, which require schools to give masks to students if needed, even on their school bus.
A different approach is being contemplated about 35 miles north of Sacramento, in the Wheatland Union High School District, where officials in June penned a letter to state health officials expressing concern over the mask mandate.
With vaccination rates increasing, and children apparently less susceptible to the virus, Supt. Nicole Newman wrote, continuing a mask mandate would only serve as “a constant reminder to the students of the fear and uncertainty they experienced during the peak of the pandemic.”
Vaccines and safety protocols have changed the equation, she said, especially in light of recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC on Friday strongly recommended masking for students who are not vaccinated, but not necessarily for those who have been inoculated — and left broad discretion to local officials to make the decision. The CDC called for multilayered safety measures in stressing the importance of fully opening schools in the fall.
While California’s policy is within CDC guidelines, other states could determine masks are not necessary for those who are vaccinated.
“Why California has to be different is beyond me,” Newman said, adding that she’s worried that students will choose to stay home in independent study rather than attend school in a mask, which could further strain their emotional well-being.
Also, masks have prevented young students, like freshmen, from making friends at school.
“It does hurt ’em,” she said. “They need to be able to connect with kids.”
At this point, her likely recommendation to the school board would be to require face masks as a policy, but not enforce it, similar to how dress codes are managed in some places, she said.
Parents are divided.
“I am incredibly thankful,” said Los Angeles parent Kristina Wallace. “As my children are too young to be vaccinated and also at increased risk should they contract COVID, I am heartened to see officials consider the greater good. I feel relatively confident sending my children back to school after the incredible caution and care that L.A. Unified demonstrated this last year. However, removing masking would endanger my children, and I would be unwilling to send them back without the mandate, especially in light of the new variants and their unvaccinated status.”
But masking for all makes no sense to L.A. parent Melissa Lustgarten, who has boys, fully vaccinated, in middle and high school.
“The vaccine is available to everyone, and it is free,” Lustgarten said. “If some families don’t want to get it, that is completely their choice. But my kids shouldn’t suffer because of other people’s decisions. When is it ever going to be enough to get rid of masks at schools?”
In the end, the masking requirement comes as no major surprise, especially because a likely alternative, physical distancing, could make it difficult to return all students to campus, said Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and governmental relations for the Assn. of California School Administrators.
As for enforcement, he said, “I think it’s fair to say it will obviously put some educators in challenging situations.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.