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In defiance of state law, Paso students no longer have to wear masks

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On the evening of Feb. 22, Paso Robles school board members, district staff, parents, and students crowded into the district's board room for a meeting that would quickly turn contentious.

"We have a couple of topics this evening that might get a little bit emotional," Board President Chris Arend said as he started the meeting. "Try and keep the feelings a little bit under control."

MASKS OFF Students in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District will no longer be required to wear masks after a recent board vote. The resolution goes in defiance of state mandates for schools. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • MASKS OFF Students in the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District will no longer be required to wear masks after a recent board vote. The resolution goes in defiance of state mandates for schools.

One parent held up a sign that read, "Free Kids Faces." As public comment began, the crowd of parents and students booed and cheered as people got up to the podium to speak.

The board was considering a resolution (pdf download) to make mask wearing optional, a defiance of current California state mandates which are expected to be revised on Feb. 28. While the state mask mandate was lifted Feb. 16 for most indoor settings, it remains in place for schools.

Based on public comment and about 100 students who wrote into the board, the community was evenly split on the issue. The board ultimately voted 5-2 to pass the resolution, despite staff recommendations to maintain alignment with the California Department of Public Health's mandates for masks in school settings.

"Although we understand the disdain for masks and a desperate need to get back to normal, the staff has come to the recommendation for the protection of the district, its fiscal responsibility, and the safety of our students and staff," said Deputy Superintendent Jen Gaviola at the meeting.

Gaviola said the district's insurance company also recommended that it continue to abide by California's public health mandates.

"If we deviate as a district from this guidance, it would put the liability of coverage afforded to this district in jeopardy," she said.

But some board members said they were willing to take that risk.

"Frankly, I think that the risk is relatively small because to prove the facts that would lead to an adjudication against us is almost impossible," Arend said. "How is somebody going to prove that little Johnny got COVID from school and not from going with his mother to the supermarket or going anywhere else? This virus and omicron is all around us."

Trustee Nathan Williams supported staying in compliance with state mandates.

"My choice tonight is to stay the course. It is a difficult decision for me," he said. "I think it is despicable the position that [the state has] put us in. It is not fair that we on the local level are having to make that choice."

Associated Student Body President Malia Gaviola said the student senate voted on the issue to give additional student feedback to the board.

"Forty-two percent voted to get rid of masks, 52 percent wish that the board would wait for the state to come out with the new status quo, and finally 6 percent voted to keep the masks on regardless," she said. "I would urge the board to either halt the mask discussion until after the state comes out with the new mandate, or to have whatever new resolution that may pass tonight go into action after the 28th as well."

Despite staff, student body, and insurance provider recommendations, the board voted to pass the resolution and ended the mask mandate for Paso students. Those gathered in the board room erupted in applause when the resolution passed. Trustees Williams and Tim Gearhart were the two dissenting votes.

"This is extremely tough," Williams said before he cast his no vote. "My choice tonight is not that I'm for masks to stay, but just how we get there." Δ

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