Well before California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced today
that the statewide order mandating masks in K-12 schools will expire in two weeks, Rio Dell Elementary School District had decided to go its own route.
The district’s board voted unanimously Feb. 17 to adopt a policy making plain its schools would not ask any questions of students who said they are exempt from masking orders due to exemptions for people with disabilities or pursue any disciplinary actions against students generally refusing to mask on campus.
“The Rio Dell Elementary School Board recognizes the importance of an academic rigorous classroom and also recognizes that constant mask reminders and reprimands during the instructional time can be disruptive to the learning environment,” reads a statement approved by the board Feb. 17. “The prevalence of COVID-19 has decreased dramatically and the community widely supports student choice. The Rio Dell School District will move forward with its continued focus on the academic instruction of our students and will encourage students to wear a mask indoors but will not seek disciplinary action for those students that do not comply.”
While Humboldt County let its masking mandate for fully vaccinated individuals in indoor, public spaces expire
along with a similar statewide order earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control continues to classify the county as “high” risk for COVID-19 transmission and, as such, continues to recommend everyone mask in indoor public settings, a recommendation local officials continue to echo. But pressure — already mounting for months — on school districts to drop masking requirements has ratcheted up considerably in the wake of Newsom’s announcement that he would let the statewide masking order expire Feb. 15.
Rio Dell Elementary School District Superintendent Angela Johnson said parents and students had been vocal about their desire to see the district move away from the masking requirement, with some addressing the board on the matter Feb. 17. (The discussion fell under an agenda item calling for the “report, discussion and possible action on COVID-19 protocols and recent guidance,” which some in the school community felt did not provide adequate notice the board would consider deciding not to enforce what is still a statewide mandate.)
Lathe Gill, a regional staff person locally for the California Teachers Association, said he considered the board’s decision “an unfair labor practice” and a violation of the Education Employee Relations Act, which requires the district to provide its teachers association of advance notice of — and an opportunity to bargain regarding — changes in working conditions. Gill said teachers and CTA had numerous concerns about the change, including whether violating state public health orders could result in the state taking disciplinary action against teacher or administrator credentials, open schools up to civil liability and the potential loss of state and federal funds.
Gill pointed out that when a school district in Roseville voted to violate the state's public health order, the California Department of Public Health advised
that doing so would breach a "legal duty" and result in disciplinary action against teachers, while schools and districts could face fines or lawsuits.
The Rio Dell school board met in a special closed session meeting Feb. 24 to discuss concerns — and the potential for liability — brought forward by Gill, with the board ultimately voting to stand by its decision. With the board’s closed session vote coming just days before Newsom was expected to announce changes to statewide masking orders for schools, Gill said “the whole business feels like political theater,” but theater “with real financial and professional peril for schools and teachers.” Gill said some of the Rio Dell association’s members also expressed concern that district parents — including those in favor of the prior masking rules — were not advised of the board’s change in policy.
Reached after the state’s announcement today, Gill said the Rio Dell Elementary School District has provided staff with clear directives regarding implementation of the new policy, which he hopes will protect individual teachers from any personal liability. Whether the Rio Dell Teachers Association wants to pursue the matter further by filing an unfair labor practice charge is up to its members, he said.
“It was their right to advance notice and an opportunity to bargain that was violated,” Gill said. “It is their licenses that the board put at risk. And, of course, some teachers are still very worried about whether changes to masking will put their families or their students at risk. And others on the staff are very much in support of the board decision.”
Some in the greater community voiced support for the board’s decision, as well. Fortuna Mayor Sue Long took to her personal Facebook page
to applaud the board’s vote.
“I am so proud of all of you,” Long wrote. “Much respect to the board members, principal, teachers and everybody else who wants what’s best for our kids! Who else is brave enough to take a stand?”
The state’s revised order, which will go into effect March 12, allows local districts to continue mandating masking on their campuses and some — including San Diego Unified — have already announced they will continue mandatory indoor masking moving forward, with San Diego saying it would reassess when the county moves out of the CDC’s “high” risk designation. But such health orders have proven controversial — police were recently called to South Fork High School’s campus after it was put on lockdown
due to people protesting the mask mandate coming onto campus — and Newsom’s decision pushes school boards to the front of the political fray.
Despite the controversy, health officials and medical researchers have been adamant that masking is effective in slowing transmission of COVID-19. During a press conference earlier this month, California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly pointed to a California Department of Health study that found wearing a cloth mask reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission by 56 percent, while a KN95 or N95 quality mask reduces it by 83 percent. Humboldt County Health Officer Ian Hoffman has been adamant, even as he dropped the countywide masking order, that he still recommends “masking for everyone in all settings.”
When the Journal surveyed all local district superintendents
earlier this year, the vast majority cited mandatory masking as a reason they have been able to keep students in classrooms this year with minimal disruption from on-campus outbreaks, while some advocacy groups have warned that lifting masking mandates puts medically vulnerable students — including those with underlying conditions that make them susceptible to severe illness or who are immunocompromised and can’t be vaccinated — at increased risk. But some parents have been incredibly vocal in their feeling that masking in school settings impairs children’s development and makes it harder for them to learn and connect with peers.
In a statement on the CDC’s new masking guidance, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called on schools to continue to prioritize in-person learning and to work with local health experts — as well as parents and teachers — to identify best protocols. But some clearly believe there is a gap between best protocols and what officials can stomach.
“I don’t believe the local health officers in Humboldt or Del Norte county have much appetite to keep masking, despite the CDC recommendation that counties in high transmission should continue masking indoors in public settings,” Gill said. “With two exceptions, every county in California north of Sonoma is still in high transmission. Humboldt County has more than 11 times more cases per 100,000 residents and a hospitalization rate three times higher than the state average.”
In the county Joint Information Center's regular press release
issued today, Health Director Sofia Pereira noted that state officials continue to strongly recommend masks continue to be worn in schools.
"We know that masking reduces the spread of COVID-19 in our community and a cross the state," she said. "We join the state in strongly recommending wearing a mask indoors, regardless of your vaccination status."