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School mask mandate to lift after March 11

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Beginning March 14, school teachers across the state of California may see something new: The bottom half of their students' faces.

The California Department of Public Health announced on Feb. 28 that effective after March 11, masks are no longer required indoors in schools and child care centers.

RETURN TO NORMAL Classrooms will soon look more like this one from pre-pandemic times. Under new state guidance, students and teachers are no longer required to wear masks after March 11. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • RETURN TO NORMAL Classrooms will soon look more like this one from pre-pandemic times. Under new state guidance, students and teachers are no longer required to wear masks after March 11.

But some districts already took the issue into their own hands. Paso Robles Joint Unified School District's (PRJUSD) Board of Trustees passed a resolution on Feb. 22 to make mask wearing optional in defiance of California state mandates.

The board's decision came on the heels of a student-led protest at Paso Robles High School, where about 50 students came to campus unmasked.

"The students who were involved in that protest, many are in my government classes," social science teacher Geoffrey Land told New Times. "I think the students were able to kind of catalyze that frustration and anger and turn it into nonviolent action when they did their civil disobedience action. ... They approached it in a way that was peaceful and didn't disrupt learning."

Since the board's resolution passed, Land has personally continued to wear a mask in his classroom. He plans to take it off next week once the state mandate is lifted.

"I don't have any concerns about family members in my household. Everyone in my house is vaccinated and boosted," Land said. "But I will talk to my students about it and make sure they feel comfortable with me doing it."

The day after the resolution passed, Land said about half of his students had their masks off in most of his classes. But in his ethnic studies class, Land noted that a strong majority of students remained masked.

"Many of the people who were advocating for the mask-optional policy are white, and many students expressing concern about their families are people of color," Land said. "I think that reflects the disproportionate cost and burden that the pandemic has placed on the families and lives of our students of color."

After the resolution passed, some Paso teachers filed a grievance on Feb. 24 under the terms of their union's collective bargaining agreement.

"Multiple certificated employees have reported unsafe and unhealthy conditions to PRPE [Paso Robles Public Educators] because of the PRJUSD school board resolution," the grievance states. "Our members request an explanation of how allowing unvaccinated individuals without masks inside PRJUSD buildings afford[s] them safe conditions and furthermore how the refusal to test asymptomatic individuals in school settings afford[s] them safe conditions."

PRPE Executive Director Jim Lynett told New Times on March 8 that the district had until March 10 to respond, "and we have received no response so far."

From the district administration's perspective, a main concern about lifting the mask mandate early was legal liability, which was why staff recommended against passing the resolution. The district's insurance company warned that breaking California's public health mandates could jeopardize coverage.

Superintendent Curt Dubost said once the state's mandate is lifted March 11, "while I can't guarantee that we don't have any vulnerability, I think it would be lessened significantly."

But, he continued, "more worrisome to me is some students and staff members concluding that if a district can choose to obey some laws and not others, where does that stop?"

Paso's school board remains alone among SLO County districts in its defiance of California mandates. San Luis Coastal and Lucia Mar unified school districts will both follow state law and become mask-optional after March 11, Lucia Mar school board member Colleen Martin said. Templeton Unified School District voted to do the same at a March 1 meeting.

Despite the community being passionately divided on the subject, Paso teacher Land said the transition to mask-optional has been smooth so far.

"Those who are still wearing masks I think are feeling comfortable doing so, and I don't see any of the bullying or teasing or tensions that the board was afraid of," he said. "There's no judgment. It's almost like it's the color of shirt someone is wearing. No one bats an eye." Δ

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