With students back on campus full time for the first time in a year and a half, parents across SLO County are speaking out about whether or not they want their kids wearing masks at school. While people on both sides of the argument feel their voices are being silenced and that decision-makers' actions don't represent parents' wishes, ultimately the mask mandate comes from the state, not local school districts.
On Aug. 4, the Cayucos Elementary School District Board of Trustees passed a Let Them Breathe resolution, brought to the board by parent Emerald McLeod. In passing it, the board resolved to "advocate in writing to the CDPH [California Department of Public Health] to remove mandatory requirements for preventative measures, such as masks, quarantines, and asymptomatic testing," and to "allow school districts to consult with city and county health departments to determine the need for safety protocols based on local conditions." The resolution also promotes parental choice for masking and vaccinations.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- MASKING UP The state requires everyone to mask up in the classroom this year, and local parents have varying views on the mandate.
McLeod, a parent of two children at Cayucos Elementary, brought the issue to the board in an April 26 letter, where she asked the district to consider "a waiver for children to be able to interact with others without masks." The resolution she later brought to the board passed 3-2 at the Aug. 4 special meeting, with board members Chris Castillo, Steve Geil, and Susan Brownell voting yes, and board members Pete Schuler and Val Wright voting no.
A week later, at the board's Aug. 11 meeting, all of the written correspondence to the board was from parents who oppose the resolution.
"Both of my daughters receive a tremendous benefit by being in class with their peers, and in the daily interactions so crucial to their social development," parent Brendan Fritzsche wrote. "I do not disagree that wearing a face covering may present some detriments to our children's experience, but I am firmly in the belief that whatever detriments exist are far outweighed by the beneficial aspects of safely continuing in-person education. My children may not enjoy wearing a mask, but it is hardly a burden that is stunting their development."
Other parents said their kids don't mind wearing masks, and some expressed concerns about the impacts that defying the state's K-12 mask mandate would have on the district.
"My boys are 100 percent fine with their mask, and actually prefer it," parent and nurse Jennifer Lloyd wrote. "As a matter of fact, every parent I have spoken to, with the exception of one or two, find the mask to be no problem with their children. ... Advocating for breaking the law and going against the CDPH requirements with so many risks at stake is not the example I would like to see at this school."
Board President Castillo told New Times in an email that the board did send the resolution to the state about CDPH's mask mandate "and received a very good response back from the director of the CDPH."
"He acknowledged our desire to have local county control," Castillo said. "He also explained his reasoning behind the mask mandate."
Castillo added that the board, despite passing the resolution, unanimously agreed to follow all state and local mandates regarding masking and school safety.
"Everyone has been following the guidelines, and we have 100 percent compliance," he said.
Even if the school district had gained local control, they would be following the countywide indoor mask mandate, which SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein reinstated on Sept. 1.
SLO County Superintendent of Schools Jim Brescia told New Times in an email that enforcement of the state's mandate is the same as any other requirement of schools, and that initial reports from schools since reopening show adherence to masking throughout the county.
"School employees are trained to enforce all types of rules and follow the same practices regarding mask enforcement," Brescia said. "I have observed teachers working with students for understanding, providing mask breaks, moving classes outside, and other creative adjustments to facilitate compliance. Students are very adaptive to change and understand that this is one tool in helping us maintain in-person classes."
SLO County Public Health Department spokesperson Michelle Shoresman said there are potential penalties for schools, districts, and personnel that don't follow the state mandate.
"SLO County will continue to offer assistance to schools and districts to help them comply with the mandate, but ultimately the only real enforcement authority lies with the schools' administration or perhaps Cal-OSHA on behalf of the staff," Shoresman said.
One Cayucos school district parent took her advocacy for mask-wearing outside her district. Roberta Held, a parent at Cayucos Elementary School, spoke during public comment at the Lucia Mar Unified School District's Aug. 17 school board meeting. She expressed concerns that the Let Them Breathe resolution was driven forward by a "small but very vocal group of anti-mask parents," and that the Cayucos school board didn't take enough time to hear from other parents and perspectives.
"Based on the attendance and public comments made at the most recent school board meeting, on Aug. 11, 2021, it appears that the Let Them Breathe resolution does not represent the stakeholders' beliefs and wishes at Cayucos Elementary School," Held said.
The Lucia Mar school district board hasn't indicated any intentions of breaking state mandates. But not everyone is happy about that: Central Coast Families for Education Reform, a group urging the recall of three Lucia Mar board members, was a vocal presence two weeks earlier, when the group hosted a rally for mask choice before Lucia Mar's Aug. 3 board meeting. The event became boisterous, with video footage from the meeting showing members of the 200-person crowd yelling and interrupting speakers. The board opted for a Zoom meeting for its Aug. 17 meeting.
From Central Coast Families for Education Reform Vice President Mike Mulder's perspective, his group isn't "anti-mask" or "anti-vax," but rather, pro-parent choice.
"There's a number of reasons why there's parents that can decide both ways. A one-size-fits-all solution isn't good," Mulder said. "Our group's mission is not to bring up those extremist views; I think it's more just about choice for parents and that's what we're asking for—for parents on all sides of the spectrum."
Cayucos Elementary School District isn't the only board that passed a Let Them Breathe resolution: Paso Robles Joint Unified School District passed it 5-2 at the board's Aug. 10 meeting.
County Superintendent Brescia maintained that the mask mandate comes from the state, and all schools must follow it.
"All schools and child care centers throughout the county follow COVID-19 safety protocols and mandates established by the California Department of Public Health in coordination with SLO Public Health to keep our students, families, and employees safe," he said. Δ
Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at email@example.com.