Students at Santa Cruz Montessori wearing masks on Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

No fierce battles over masks at school around here: ‘Vast majority of parents’ content to play it safe

School officials report that the kind of harsh rhetoric being seen elsewhere around the country has not reared its head in Santa Cruz County. For that, school leaders who are already challenged on numerous other fronts give thanks.

Nationwide, school board meetings have become battlegrounds for debates about in-person learning and mask and vaccine mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Just last month, tensions exploded in Watsonville at a Pajaro Valley Unified School Board meeting when several parents refused to mask up.

“It is alarming that the school is looking at our kids’ vaccination rates while ignoring their criminal records,” one unmasked parent said at the Sept. 15 meeting about bringing cops back to schools.

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But in the schools themselves, officials say there have been few issues related to COVID-19 protocols, and masks have largely become the new normal.

Santa Cruz County lifted its mask mandate on Sept. 29 amid decreasing community transmission rates of the virus, but face coverings are still required for all unvaccinated individuals and in all California schools.

On Oct. 1, following the lifting of the mask mandate, the county’s district superintendents wrote in a joint letter to families, “COVID-19 transmission numbers are continuing to trend downward in our community. However, as we increase the number of students getting tested throughout Santa Cruz County, we continue to see positive cases in our schools.”

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County schools have seen 130 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff since Aug. 29, and there are currently 30 active cases, according to a county COVID-19 testing dashboard.

According to the superintendents’ letter, these cases are “a reminder that we must not grow complacent — and our COVID-19 mitigation efforts must continue apace.”

Since this announcement, schools have seen little pushback from parents or students, according to several officials.

Students at Ann Soldo Elementary School in Watsonville.
(Via Pajaro Valley Unified School District)

Michelle Rodriguez, the PVUSD superintendent, said that after a group of parents protested masks at a school board meeting a few months back, the board of trustees came out with a resolution in favor of mask-wearing in schools. But with students largely compliant, the district hasn’t had to implement any of those protocols.

Similarly, Santa Cruz City Schools has heard no pushback from parents since the Oct. 1 announcement.

“Parents have gotten pretty used to change ... the reactions have gotten smaller,” said Sam Rolens, a SCCS spokesperson, adding that the “vast majority of parents” want to play it safer when it comes to the virus.

One of these parents is Tatiana Salvano, whose 5-year-old goes to Gault Elementary School. She said her son hasn’t had any trouble with masking.

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“He’s 5 years old, and I was worried about how he would possibly tolerate wearing a mask all day, and he has never once complained,” Salvano said, adding that she hopes masks stick around even when more kids are vaccinated against the coronavirus.

By the end of October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could grant emergency use authorization allowing the Pfizer vaccine to be given to children ages 5-11.

And just last Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all middle and high school students once the shots are fully authorized by the FDA — though students and staff could still opt out for religious or ideological reasons.

While county schools don’t anticipate these requirements will take effect before July 2022, officials are preparing for future pushback.

According to Rolens, SCCS is preparing to offer more independent studies programs in the event of a vaccine mandate. PVUSD also has open slots in its virtual academy that could be offered to unvaccinated students.

“We’ll be there to support along the way,” Rodriguez said.