Third-grade students wear masks during class
Third grade dual-language students wear masks during class at Montara Avenue Elementary School in August.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
K-12 Education

California voters strongly support mask and vaccine mandates in K-12 schools

The poll suggests broad public support for policies aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus in schools, even as protests against mask and vaccine mandates garner attention.

Nearly two-thirds of California voters, including a majority of parents, support mask and vaccine mandates in K-12 schools, according to a poll conducted this month by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

The results of the early February poll of nearly 9,000 California voters suggest continued broad public support for policies aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus in schools, even as protests against mask and vaccine mandates garner public attention in school districts across the state.

“People really want the schools to get back to where they were,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll. “But the desire to open schools is tempered with these feelings that these precautions should still be in place.”

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Statewide, the poll showed that a significant number of Latino and Black parents — populations that have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic — did not feel their children were safe from COVID-19 at schools.

The numbers also point to deeply entrenched political divides — about 70% of Republicans were opposed to mask and vaccine mandates for schools while about 85% of Democrats supported them.

A majority of nearly all other demographic groups broken out in the poll — including parents, low income, wealthy, white, Black, Latino and Asian voters — supported the school mandates.

Among parents of school-age children, 61% approved when asked whether they supported California’s requirement that “students, teachers, and staff in K-12 public schools wear masks while in school this year.” Thirty-seven percent disapproved.

A smaller majority of parents, 55%, approved of California’s plan to add COVID-19 to the list of vaccines required for schoolchildren once the COVID-19 inoculations are fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration; 42% disapproved.

Nonparents showed even stronger support, with two-thirds in favor of mask and vaccine mandates for schools.

State officials are reassessing rules requiring students and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, with an announcement on their future on Monday.

Overall, state and county officials are relaxing mask policies. Last week, California lifted its universal mask mandate for vaccinated residents in indoor public places, with Santa Cruz County following suit.

The poll numbers come as protests against mask mandates by parents and students have grown across the state, with some parents demanding that local school boards stop enforcing the rules.

Chino Valley Unified is one of many local school districts recently roiled by vocal protests — with dozens of parents and students earlier this month packing a school board meeting to demand that schools stop enforcing mask mandates. The meeting turned raucous with parents shouting “recall” at board members as they worked through the meeting’s agenda.

School Board President Christina Gagnier said the protesters don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of broad swaths of the community.

“The reality is we’re not hearing from thousands of parents or students saying they are against the mask mandate. That’s just not what’s happening,” she said.

“People are either OK with the mandates or they want them to go away but they understand that it’s out of our control,” she added. “That small vocal group that is showing up to our meetings or having these very small protests, that’s not a reflection of what the community is feeling on these issues.”

Groups that oppose mask mandates, meanwhile, feel strongly that it’s past time for California to lift rules that other states have already eliminated.

“Last year, California was the last state to reopen schools and we are once again now in the last states to either allow for mask optional in schools or set a date in the next couple of weeks for that to happen. I think parents are feeling really frustrated,” said Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of the group CA Parent Power.

The group is urging parents to contact state lawmakers, county health officers, school board members and superintendents to push for optional masking in schools.

“Right now, most of our focus is on returning a sense of normalcy to schools and the No. 1 way we think that can be achieved is to allow for masks to be optional in schools,” Bacigalupi said.

Statewide support for adding COVID-19 to the list of mandated student vaccines — including measles, mumps, diphtheria and other diseases — was strong. The poll results were mixed when Los Angeles voters were asked about their support for a vaccine mandate adopted by L.A. Unified that goes beyond existing state rules.

Children wear masks in a classroom at Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz
Children wear masks in a classroom at Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

L.A. Unified’s policy requires students 12 and older, starting in the fall, to be vaccinated unless they receive a rare medical exemption. Those who do not comply will be required to attend online school starting. About 90% of students 12 and older are in compliance with the policy, district officials said.

When asked about their support for the district’s policy, about 38% of L.A. voters said unvaccinated students should be required to take classes online; 27% said unvaccinated students should be allowed to attend some in-person classes if special precautions are taken, but should be excluded from group activities that pose a greater risk of exposing others to the virus. And 26% said unvaccinated students should be allowed to attend in-person classes with no special restrictions.

The current state rule takes effect for grades seven through 12, starting with the school term following full FDA approval of a vaccine for children ages 12 and older. The only authorized COVID-19 vaccine for children at this time is Pfizer-BioNTech, which is fully approved for individuals 16 and older and is authorized for emergency use for those 5 and older.

Students in kindergarten through sixth grade would be phased in after the vaccine has been approved for their age group. Parents would be able to opt their children out of inoculation based on personal beliefs.

However, state lawmakers are considering legislation that would tighten the current rule. It would mandate all public and private school students to be immunized for COVID-19, allowing for only rare medical exemptions. Personal belief exemptions would not be allowed under the proposed law.

Ross Novie, who founded the group Los Angeles Uprising and is the parent of two L.A. Unified students, is organizing a march on Sunday dubbed the “March to Free LA,” which is aimed at ending vaccine and mask mandates.

Novie said he supports strongly recommending vaccines but feels mandating them in schools “is a bridge too far.”

“Ordering people and coercing people can cause massive damage down the road,” he said.

Evelyn Aleman, who founded the group Our Voice: Communities for Quality Education, is an L.A. Unified parent who strongly supports the vaccine mandate. Like many Latino families in Los Angeles, she has lost family members to COVID-19, she said.

“I think it’s important to ensure that everybody is safe, that the community is safe,” Aleman said. “And that means that everyone who is eligible needs to be vaccinated.”

Several members, who are largely Latino immigrant parents of L.A. Unified students, said they also strongly support vaccine and mask mandates.

Statewide, half of Latino parents and 43% of Black parents polled said they were not confident their children were safe from COVID-19 while in school. About a quarter of white parents felt the same.

“It’s true that one day we have to get back to normal,” said Juanita Garcia, the grandmother and guardian of an L.A. Unified student. “But the situation still looks worrisome.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.