North County Report: Mask Mandate Is Parents Groups' Latest Target

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North County Report: Mask Mandate Is Parents Groups' Latest Target

One Carlsbad Council member goes and one stays, Fallbrook Union Elementary school board president is pushed out of the role and more in our biweekly roundup of North County news.

escondido schools covid
A Bear Valley Middle School student works on a class assignment. The Escondido Union School District has offered a hybrid model that includes in-person instruction. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For now, students in Carlsbad, Poway and Vista are on track to return to school in the fall. And under state guidelines, they must wear a mask in the classroom. Unsurprisingly, the mask requirement is becoming a hostile debate between some parents, school leaders and the state. It’s reminiscent of the reopening debates over the last school year: Some North County parent groups want kids to have a choice to wear masks in the classroom, but school leaders in those districts want to follow national guidance, which currently requires all kids who are unvaccinated to wear masks in the classroom.

After many small, rural school district officials in California announced they will refuse to send kids home if they’re not wearing a mask to school, a group of parents from more populated North County school districts called Let Them Breathe is demanding school leaders make a similar promise to let parents have a say in whether their kids, regardless of whether they are vaccinated, wear masks to school.

Last week, the superintendent of the Alpine Union School District announced that if districts are allowed discretion, he will make masks optional for students. The district was also one of the first to receive a waiver from the state and county to reopen, and one of the first school districts in the county to actually reopen schools for in-person learning.

In various Facebook groups, parents over the last week have argued that all kids should have the choice to wear a mask. In a Vista Parents Facebook group, one parent gave “kudos” to Alpine Union School District. “Well done Alpine! It’s all about CHOICE,” another person wrote in a group called the Parents Association.

Even some school leaders are frustrated with the state’s position.

On July 12, the California Department of Public Health released guidance requiring all California school districts to implement and enforce health and safety mandates indicating that on school campuses, masks will be optional outside and required inside, regardless of vaccination status. The state’s updated guidance reads: “Schools must develop and implement local protocols to provide a face covering to students who inadvertently fail to bring a face covering to school to prevent unnecessary exclusions.” It also notes that “schools must develop and implement local protocols to enforce the mask requirements.”

“Additionally,” a spokesperson for the CDPH wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego, “schools should offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.”

Superintendents from Carlsbad Unified, Poway Unified and Vista Unified want to be more lenient on masks and allow vaccinated kids to go without them, but they’re not exactly on the same page as parents.

Those school officials are calling on state health officials this week to allow them to bypass state guidance to enforce the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask guidance instead.

On July 9, the CDC announced that masks should be worn indoors by all individuals ages 2 or older who are not fully vaccinated, but kids who are vaccinated can remain unmasked.

“Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” the CDC’s website reads.

On July 13, San Diego County Board Supervisor Jim Desmond made a motion to reverse the state mask mandate for kids in county schools, and instead leave the decision to each child’s parents. The motion failed.

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics went a step further and said everyone older than 2 should wear masks in schools this fall, vaccinated or not, particularly because so much of the student population isn’t yet eligible for vaccination.

Olivia Schouten, a spokeswoman for the Carlsbad Unified School District, said the district doesn’t have the authority or discretion to change the state mandate, and is required to enforce the mask requirement as it would with any law. She said district officials are continuing to monitor the latest updates and will communicate with staff and students about the expectations at the start of the school year.

“As we know from this past year, public health guidelines are constantly changing. … In the meantime, the public is welcome to direct their concerns and/or comments about this mandate to the [California Department of Public Health],” Schouten wrote in an email.

The debate between parents and school board members sounds eerily similar to the debate over when to reopen to in-person schooling. Despite calls to reopen, many schools remained closed through the end of the spring semester, causing those same parents groups to claim that their trust in school leaders was dwindling.

At the time, the Parent Association of North County and others demanded that school leaders give all kids the opportunity to go back to school in the face of national and state recommendations that schools remain closed due to increasing coronavirus cases. The Parent Association is now urging parents to reach out to their district leaderships to ask the state to revise their guidelines before school starts next month.

“The Parent Association is concerned that the CDPH is not following CDC Guidance allowing masks to be implemented depending on local case rates and vaccinations and is again attempting to mandate a one-size-fits-all strategy against the overwhelming consensus from public health officials that schools should determine mitigation strategies based on their unique circumstances,” the group wrote on Facebook.

My colleague Will Huntsberry wrote about how several standoffs happening on school boards around San Diego County in recent weeks trace their origins to bitter debates over reopening during the pandemic. Now, that latent reopening energy seems to be spilling over into new conflicts like the latest debate over whether kids have to wear masks to school.

Sharon Mckeeman, the founder of Let Them Breathe, told NBC 7 that her group sees the mandate as detrimental and ineffective.

The group is preparing to file a lawsuit against the state, Mckeeman told a reporter, and she hopes to have the issue settled before kids go back to school in August.

Leadership Changes in Carlsbad

One Democrat in Carlsbad is out and another is staying on.

On June 9, City Councilwoman Cori Schumacher abruptly resigned. In a statement to constituents, she wrote that she has chosen to attend a university outside of San Diego.

“As some folks know, I have been attending school part-time while also serving in my capacity as city council member … It’s an opportunity I simply cannot refuse,” she wrote.

Schumacher had been facing a possible recall. Carl DeMaio, whose group Reform California, had pushed the recall, claimed credit for the move, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis wrote in a recent Politics Report.

The City Council will appoint a new representative for the District 1 seat, the Coast News reported. Schumacher’s departure from the Carlsbad City Council is the third since 2014, the Union-Tribune reported.

Following Schumacher’s resignation, Carlsbad City Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel announced on Tuesday that she’s suspending her campaign for the California Senate to remain focused on the city.

What We’re Working on

The latest updates in the aftermath of the tortilla-throwing incident …

  • The tortilla-throwing incident at Coronado High was shocking, but the Coronado community’s tendency to rally in support of a high-profile coach under fire was not. I wrote about how several recent controversies involving Coronado High coaches underscore the school’s record of maintaining decorated athletics and extracurricular programs — and show just how determined some community members and alumni are to protect them.
  • Across the region, school administrators have fired coaches after finding they acted inappropriately or abused their roles as student mentors, while retaining them as teachers and leaving them accessible to students.

School board drama is ramping up …

  • More than a month after the ousting of Fallbrook Union Elementary School District’s board president, the board and district staff have declined to make public any information that would help explain the decision, VOSD contributor Will Fritz reported.

In Other News

  • The Poway synagogue shooter, who killed one person and injured three others in 2019, pleaded guilty to murder and all other charges he faced. (Union-Tribune)
  • Horse racing at the Del Mar racetrack is in full swing, and fans are excited to be back at the racetrack. But in the span of an hour Sunday in Del Mar, two horses died during workouts, according to track officials. Meanwhile, a new North County group is rescuing miniature horses from the slaughterhouse. (Union-Tribune)
  • Vista Unified promised to increase its girls’ participation in high school sports and to ensure that their athletic programs are equal in quality to boys’ programs in a settlement agreement after two civil rights groups claimed Vista’s sports facilities for girls were inferior to the boys’ facilities. (Union-Tribune)
  • A nonprofit that provides services to low-income families in North County launched a mobile laundry trailer. (KPBS)
  • And finally, Oceanside will receive millions in House appropriations funding. (Patch)
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