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Geography, politics key factors in whether California school districts will still require masking

Larry Edgemon's 5th grade class at Del Dayo Elementary School in Carmichael, Calif, Tuesday, Feb 15, 2022.
Andrew Nixon
Larry Edgemon's 5th grade class at Del Dayo Elementary School in Carmichael, Calif, Tuesday, Feb 15, 2022.

California returned the contentious issue of masking to school district officials to decide when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that the school mask mandate would end March 12.

Now, district officials are trying to decide what is best for students and how to adapt when families are so sharply divided over Covid protocols.

The state also has given school staff the option to go without a mask if their county public health office and school district approve.

Some districts already have made decisions about masking, sending letters to parents outlining their plans. Most stress that masks are still mandatory through March 11 and that the district will follow the state’s recommendation and “strongly recommend” them after that date, although they will not require them.

Other messages are more vague, leaving parents scratching their heads, unsure whether “strongly recommended” means the masks are still required or that they are optional.

In California, decisions about masking are sometimes more about geography and politics than infection rates. In more liberal areas, often with lower Covid rates, mask mandates are more likely to remain than in conservative areas with much higher infection rates.

Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified, South San Francisco Unified and San Diego Unified are among the districts that have announced they will keep indoor mask policies for the time being. The San Francisco school districts have decided to continue mask mandates despite high vaccination rates and low infection rates in the city, while San Diego has high Covid-19 infection rates.

“Health officials have stated that masking is one of the least burdensome policies on schools and is effective at curbing transmission,” San Francisco Unified officials said in a statement. “It helps prevent infections among students and staff and their families, and reduces missed school days.”

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district could relax some Covid protocols closer to summer. In a Tweet Monday, Carvalho said the district will continue to consult with its medical director and health partners to establish an updated mask policy.

“We respect the voices of all stakeholders, and as such, we will remain engaged with our labor partners, employees and families as we maintain and seek practices that are protective, responsive and in the best interest of school communities,” he said .

Carmel Levitan, who is a parent to a first- and a fifth-grade student at Eagle Rock Elementary School and Magnet in Los Angeles Unified, thinks things are moving too fast. She would like to wait until all age groups can be vaccinated and there are higher vaccination rates.

“I mean two months ago we were upgrading our masks to the best ones we could get,” she said. “And so it seems very quick that they’re suddenly optional.”

Levitan is considering sending her children to virtual school.

The district’s teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, also would like the district to keep the mandate. In a statement to KTLA and other media on Monday, UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said that though Covid-19 cases have been declining, there are still many unvaccinated children in schools and early education programs, so discussing dropping the mandate would be “premature.”

The district’s contract with the union calls for masking through the remainder of the school year, so an end to the mandate would need to be negotiated with the union.

In the Central Valley, where masking or not masking has become a political statement, the announcement was celebrated by many.

“The Lodi USD Board of Education thanks our community for their cooperation and patience through all of the challenges brought on by the health pandemic and they look forward to the end of the mask mandate in schools,” said a statement from Lodi Unified Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer. “We will continue to provide masks after March 11 for those who want them as long as supplies last. We greatly appreciate your continued cooperation.”

Bakersfield City School District announced Tuesday that masks would no longer be required beginning March 14. That makes Camila Chavez, a parent and executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, nervous. Chavez, who has two elementary school age children in the district, notes that it is young children who are least likely to be vaccinated in Kern County.

Chavez said she’s “fearful” of school districts rolling back mask requirements because it has been Latino communities who have been hardest hit by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Dolores Huerta Foundation has promoted vaccination, hosted vaccine clinics and distributed masks throughout the Central Valley.

Sacramento City Unified officials have not yet decided whether to end mask mandates. Parent Rashida Dunn-Nasr does not want that to happen. Three of her four children have contracted Covid-19 at district schools, she said.

Her children will continue to wear masks in school, whatever the district’s decision, she said.

“I’m concerned, and I think they should have masks,” she said. “If they are going to press the matter of forcing them to go to school at least have the added protection of the mask.”

Some district officials are concerned that the change in masking rules could cause conflict among students, who — like their parents — have widely divergent opinions about the Covid-19 virus and the safety measures that have been put in place to curtail its spread. For some, the pandemic has become political and masking is a symbol of a political position.

In a letter to parents Feb. 28, Katie Perata, executive director of Catholic Schools Diocese of Sacramento, said the mask mandate would immediately end for students at its 40 schools if their counties rated low or medium on the new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rating system. The letter encouraged families to talk to their children about respecting other students’ right to wear a mask.

“Whether or not a student wears a mask is a family decision and, in the classroom, we want to ensure no child is made to feel uncomfortable due to that choice,” said Perata. “This preparation is essential for inclusive and respectful environments as we move forward.”

San Juan Unified, which has had an uptick in mask protests by students since March 1 when the state removed most other indoor mask mandates, will also make masking optional March 12. Recently, district officials have started to hear from parents concerned about the prospect of removing the mask requirements. Some have a family member at home with underlying conditions or who hasn’t been vaccinated, said Raj Rai, district spokeswoman.

“San Juan Unified recognizes that there are a variety of very strong feelings regarding mask coverings,” said a statement on the district’s website. “For some individuals, relaxing these requirements will cause anxiety and stress while others will advocate for a more rapid move to only recommending a mask. Throughout the pandemic, San Juan Unified has followed the guidance and advice of our public health and epidemiology experts and that is what we continue to do as we implement this change.”

Alameda Unified is waiting for guidance from the Alameda County Public Health Department before it makes a decision, said Susan Davis, spokeswoman for the district. District officials also will confer with the school board and labor unions, she said.

Assia Day, who teaches at Maya Lin School in the district, is afraid some students will remove their mask on March 12, whatever the district’s decision.

“Students in my third-grade class have told me that their parents do not want them to be around other kids who have not been vaccinated,” Day said. “And, I’m afraid the same will happen when the required mask mandate ends.”

Whittier Union High School District school psychologist Stephanie Murray said school staff should talk to students about being respectful and should be vigilant to prevent bullying. Whittier Union High School District, in Los Angeles County, has yet to decide whether to make masking optional.

“I know a lot of students may choose to continue to wear masks, and I think part of the conversation will be that we don’t know what is going on in the life of a child sitting in the classroom, and their peers need to recognize that everyone has a different comfort level, and may have loved ones who are immunocompromised, and we know they may have their own anxiety about wearing or not wearing a mask for many other reasons,” Murray said. “I think the vast majority of students will be respectful.”

Brett McFadden, superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High School District, in rural Nevada County, has witnessed many contentious school board meetings and protests over masking. He and other administrators have been meeting with union leadership to try to rebuild trust after the school board voted to rescind the mask mandate, in advance of the state decision, without renegotiating an agreement with staff unions that included masks among the required safety protocols.

McFadden Is hopeful that with masking no longer an issue, the district will be able to return to normal operations, without the loud combative school board meetings and other disruptions.

But California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly has said Covid mitigation measures, like masking, could come back if the virus surges across the state again.

“People aren’t going back,” McFadden said. “Maybe that happens in Los Angeles, maybe in San Francisco but not in Modoc County, Riverside County, Nevada County. There is no going back.”

EdSource reporters Carolyn Jones, Kate Sequeira, Emma Gallegos and Ali Tadayon contributed to this report.