Solana Beach School District parents question state’s mask mandate

A fourth grade classroom at Skyline School last school year.
A fourth grade classroom at Skyline School. As of March 8, all grades of the Solana Beach School District are back four days a week.

Per the California Department of Public Health guidelines, all California students and staff will be required to wear masks indoors this coming school year, regardless of vaccination status. Masks will be optional when students are outside.

With the release of the new guidelines, July 1 marked the first day students in the Solana Beach School District’s summer program had the option to take off their masks for recess. Students were overheard exclaiming: “This feels so weird!” and “Wow, I can feel the breeze on my skin!”

At the July 22 board meeting, Solana Beach School District Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger explained that despite the urging from some parents, school districts do not have the ability to make their own decisions regarding students wearing masks—they must follow the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) guidelines.

At lunch, recess and outdoor learning times, students will have the option to take that step toward normalcy and see the faces and smiles of their peers.

“We’re focusing on what we do get to do with the hope and optimism that we’ll get to do more as time moves on,” Brentlinger said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had said masks aren’t needed for fully vaccinated individuals in school, however on July 27 they revised its guidelines to recommend that all teachers, staff and students of K-12 schools wear masks, even if they are vaccinated.

As Brentlinger noted, the American Academy of Pediatrics has also recommended that all school staff and students, ages 2 and up, wear masks except for those with certain medical conditions.

In reviewing the health and safety plans for the coming school year, SBSD board member Julie Union said her biggest challenge is the masks inside.

“California is one of a minority of states in the country still making masks mandatory for kids,” Union said, noting that 40 states have eliminated mask mandates for school in the coming year.

An additional eight states have banned local districts from instituting a mask mandate in their schools including Utah, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, Vermont and South Carolina.

“I personally believe that the pros don’t outweigh the cons for children,” Union said. “I know we’re following CDPH guidelines, but I’m hopeful that they revise them as they are learning more information and getting data from more states and different countries.”

Poway Unified, Carlsbad Unified and Vista Unified recently sent a letter to the CDPH asking for the districts to follow the CDC’s mask guidelines instead of the more restrictive state guidelines.

Parents too are pushing back—last week the San Diego-based parent group Let Them Breathe sued the state seeking to end the mask mandate, arguing that masks hurt children’s social, mental and physical health and that masks should be a choice, not a requirement.

The debate over masks reached the Solana Beach district at its July 22 board meeting, with several parents asking the district for students to be unmasked. Parents said that they believed the masks were detrimental to in-person instruction, caused a loss of social interaction and were unnecessary as COVID-19 presents a low risk for children.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, since the pandemic began children represented 14.2% of total cumulated cases. For the week ending July 15, children were 15.9% of reported weekly COVID-19 cases.

The available data indicates that COVID-19-associated hospitalization and death is uncommon in children. According to the CDC, there have been 325 deaths attributed to COVID-19 for people under the age of 18. The number appears to have surpassed the flu—the flu typically kills about 100 children a year, with totals ranging from 39 to 199 in recent years, according to the CDC.

Evidence is also still emerging about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on young people.

Speaking out against the mask mandate, SBSD parent Joseph Farage shared in written public comment that 20 members of his immediate family contracted COVID-19, including his father who passed away due to the virus. While both of his young children were continuously exposed to the virus by him and his wife in their home, they never contracted COVID-19.

“Even though my father passed away I still strongly believe that you are not acting in the best interest of our children by believing that masks prevent COVID-19 from kids,” Farage said. “With teachers, staff and other adults all having had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, the perceived risk of children spreading the virus has been removed. Therefore there is no public health justification for forcing children to wear masks in school.”

During public comment, other parents spoke out in support of continuing with the mask protocols due to the Delta variant, the local increase in cases and the fact that vaccines are not yet available for students.

“We’re all exhausted and done with COVID but COVID is not done with the unvaccinated, which includes our elementary-age children,” said David Hay, a Solana Santa Fe School parent.

At the meeting, the board discussed its health and safety measures for the coming school year which include masks, healthy hygiene breaks, sufficient ventilation and increased cleaning and disinfecting. The district will continue with stable groupings of students, but the groupings will be expanded—this will help the district with contract tracing and eliminate the need for staggered arrival and dismissal times. The expanded groupings will also have a social and emotional benefit for students, allowing them to have a larger peer interaction group.

Class sizes will remain smaller for the 2021-22 school year but there will be some flexibility to minimize the need for combination classes and keep families together at one school.

The district will enroll in the state’s testing program which will give them free access to the rapid antigen tests for asymptomatic surveillance testing as well as rapid testing for symptomatic testing. The district will begin the year offering voluntary asymptomatic testing every eight weeks for staff and students.

“It’s very important that we protect these students as they are the only population now that is not eligible for a vaccination,” said SBSD Vice President Debra Schade. “Our goal is to stay open. And to do that we still have to address these layered mitigations.”

Amanda Goodman, co-president of the Solana Beach Teachers Association, said teachers still have concerns and questions about how CDPH guidelines will impact teaching and learning but they are happy to be back in person and looking forward to a positive school year.

“The health and safety of students and staff, as well as students’ social and emotional wellbeing, needs to be prioritized,” Goodman said. “We believe that being in school with safety protocols is the best way to do both.”