Fourth-grade students at Lucerne Valley Elementary School don masks and Western wear for a “Walk Through California” history day during in-person instruction. (Courtesy of Krystal Nelson)

Fourth-grade students at Lucerne Valley Elementary School don masks and Western wear for a “Walk Through California” history day during in-person instruction. (Courtesy of Krystal Nelson)

Confusion over mask mandate for California schools sparks tension between districts and parents

By Diana Lambert

EdSource

Shifting rules around mask mandates at schools are confusing and angering parents who are focusing their frustration on local school districts.

Adding to the confusion: Last week Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to let local school districts decide how to deal with students who refuse to follow the state’s mask mandate. Now, parents who don’t want their children to wear masks are showing up at school board meetings to demand their districts disregard the mandate.

“As the confusion increases, more parents are speaking out, and this is where the public pressure is going to mount on boards,” said Mike Walsh, president of the Butte County Office of Education and former president of the California School Boards Association.

Board meetings have become particularly challenging in rural areas that have low Covid-19 transmission rates and where schools were open most of last year.

“North state parents say they aren’t going to send their kids back to school if they have to wear masks,” said Richard DuVarney, Tehama County superintendent of schools. “They think the mental health risks outweigh the risk of their children contracting Covid.”

Some parents protesting masks at schools don’t see the state guidance as a mandate or don’t care if it is required. Some interpret the governor’s decision to let school districts decide how to enforce the mandate as license to make masks optional.

The state guidance this school year hasn’t changed much from the guidance last school year, said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association. Schools must enforce mask requirements or offer alternative educational options, he said.

The mask requirement doesn’t apply to children younger than age 2, students with medical or mental health conditions or who are hearing impaired or are communicating with a hearing-impaired person.

The state masking policy will test the relationship school districts have with their communities, Walsh said. “If the public has a good relationship, they will be more supportive,” he said. “It will be important that the public be heard.”

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