Solana Beach School District requires outdoor masks for students

Students inside a classroom at the new Solana Vista School.
(Katie Zimmer)

The Solana Beach School District will require students to wear masks when outdoors on campus, not just when indoors.

The district joins San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified School District in taking this step beyond the California Department of Public Health guidelines, in light of the Delta variant and being able to limit quarantine time for students who have been in close contact with a positive case and reduce staff time spent on contact tracing.

For the record:

9:39 a.m. Sept. 1, 2021Bob Mueller did not assess the district’s past decisions related to modified quarantine. To be eligible for modified quarantine, the student close contact and the COVID-positive individual must both have been wearing masks during the entire 15 minutes or more that they were within 6 feet of each other during the 24 hour period that close contact occurred. This includes time indoors and outside.

At a special meeting on Aug. 26, SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said, the Delta variant has “rewritten the book on COVID” and has required making this adjustment in their plans.

“Our intention is crystal clear: The health and safety of our students and staff is always the foundation from which we work from,” Brentlinger said. “This year, keeping our schools open and our students in class as much as possible is the second pillar of our work.”

Outdoor masking is not a permanent decision for the school year as the board expects to revisit the mandate again on Oct. 14 and evaluate the current situation with the virus.

In addition to outdoor masking, the board also approved additional mitigation strategies such as using cold plasma technology in the schools’ ventilation systems and suspending surveillance testing to focus on using testing resources for the twice-weekly testing required to get students back in school on modified quarantine after exposure to a positive case.

The district will also utilize seating charts and keeping students distanced during lunchtime to further assist with contact tracing.

“We have the #1 most vulnerable population and that is our pediatric K-6 students who are assembling in classrooms and on playgrounds in groups. I feel very strongly in being proactive,” said SBSD Vice President Debra Schade in support of the new safety measures. “It is all designed to protect our students, protect our families and our staff and continue learning, so that learning takes place in the classroom for an entire year without multiple disruptions.”

SBSD Trustee Julie Union acknowledged that outdoor masking was a difficult decision: “We represent our community and our community is really divided,” Union said.

Union said she was supporting it with the condition that it would be re-evaluated in the coming months and that when possible, students would be given mask breaks during outdoor activities during the day.

Quarantine confusion
After school started on Aug. 16, the Solana Beach School District had six classes pivot into online learning under a quarantine protocol.

Parent Kim Kruk said on the second day of school, she was called to pick up her son from school after a positive case in his class required the entire class to quarantine for 10 days.

“I was shocked,” Kruk said. “Some students had been waiting over a year and a half to return to the classroom and were unnecessarily sent home crying after one day.”

Her understanding was that close contacts would be notified but the remaining class would be allowed to stay in school in modified quarantine—she said that was the protocol being followed by neighboring Del Mar Union, Cardiff and Encinitas Union School Districts.

According to Bob Mueller, the San Diego County Office of Education’s assistant incident commander for COVID-19, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) offers three quarantine options for kids exposed in school settings. Mueller said the guidance is “a trainwreck” and “almost indecipherable”; he said it is understandable that people got confused or even angry.

Per the guidance, students can return from quarantine on day 11 with no test or on day eight with evidence of a negative test administered on day 6 or later. The modified in-school quarantine allows students to remain in school with evidence of a negative test administered twice a week, at least three days apart.

Mueller said the modified quarantine is only available when contact tracing finds that students were masked during all of their contacts within six feet of each other, indoors and outside.

The state does not require students or adults to wear masks outdoors at school. The chance of transmission outdoors is decreased but Mueller said it is still possible as they have seen many cases with high contact outdoor sports like football and soccer.

Prior to the meeting, the district had received a petition signed by 247 parents asking for stronger protocols to keep students safe, including outdoor masking, medical grade masks, increased physical distancing while students eat their meals and snacks, and additional air purifiers with HEPA filters—parents even offered to purchase the portable air filers themselves.

Brad Mason, SBSD director of facilities, maintenance and operations recommended the use of cold plasma technology over the HRPA filters as the air filters are better for smaller spaces. The cold plasma technology would instead work system-wide, placed inside the ducts and killing up to 99.9% of airborne pathogens. The installation will cost $300,000, using available ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding.

The Solana Beach Teachers Association also urged the district to move forward with outdoor masking.

“We believe this will save many hours of academic time and keep students at the school sites rather than off,” said Neva Ayn Megalnick, co-president of the SBTA.

The board heard from 38 speakers during public comment, with many parents opposed to more masking and requesting that masks remain optional outside: “Please, please, please no masks outdoors for these sweet kiddos,” read one parent’s written comment.

Eric Hennings, a Solana Ranch parent, said the board should carefully consider contingency plans but not let its decision-making be led by fear.

“We are tired of the voices of fear arguing for school shut downs, quarantines, mask mandates and limitations on kids’ interactions when one, there is no scientific basis for it and two, it ignores the social-emotional, educational benefit of our children,” he said.

Solana Vista parent Rachel Doyle said while masks are helpful in an indoor setting, too much masking creates other health concerns for children.

“It is wild to me that we would consider masking our children outdoors when immediately after school many children go straight to football, soccer or playdates with other students,” she said.

She said the main reason for requiring outdoor masking seems to be to avoid the 8-10 day quarantine procedures, which she said may be an inconvenience for families but it is working.

Rommie Amaro, a SBSD parent and UC San Diego professor and researcher who has established herself as a COVID-19 expert, spoke in favor of the district implementing outdoor masking and stronger protocols, based on the science.

“Delta is better able to attach to and infect human cells. Delta produces 1,000 times more viral particles in the noses of infected individuals, fully vaccinated individuals are more susceptible to contracting and spreading Delta and Delta has a significantly higher transmission ability outdoors,” she said. “Altogether the data clearly establishes that Delta is particularly more dangerous to unvaccinated children.”

Gohar Gyurijyan, a Solana Highlands parent, said she understood the district’s need to act fast and protect children as the Delta variant surges and while children are unvaccinated.

“Let’s have a little patience and wait a little bit. I understand we want to see smiles…but we can’t swap lives for smiles,” Gyurijyan said. “The actions each of us takes can mean life and death for someone else.”

Rady expert weighs in
As the board weighed their decision on outdoor masks, they heard presentations from Mueller and John Bradley, the medical director of infectious diseases at Rady Children’s Hospital.

As about 65% of children 12 and older have been vaccinated, rates of new infections are dropping in that age group. Bradley said what’s driving pediatric cases in San Diego County now are the 6- to 11-year-olds.

“If Delta hadn’t shown up…the whole pandemic would be over,” Bradley said. “Delta is so incredibly contagious that it has not only extended the pandemic but made it spread so profoundly.”

Back in May, Rady had closed their COVID ward because they had so few cases but in July, as adult cases increased so did pediatric cases. As of Aug. 24, Rady had 50 COVID cases so far and August 2021 was the hospital’s highest month for hospitalizations since December 2020 and the January surge.

Bradley said most kids on the ward are asymptomatic from COVID but coming in for other diseases. The sickest kids are the adolescents, who have some of the same risk factors as adults—Rady currently has eight ICU cases.

No child in San Diego County has died from COVID-19.

Bradley, also a grandparent of SBSD students, said that more stringent efforts are justified to demonstrate students can be back at school safely without creating health risks to other kids, teachers, parents, grandparents and other at-risk relatives.

In her remarks, Trustee Gaylin Allbaugh said she appreciated all of the parents’ passion and advocacy for their children and their willingness to get involved. She said it is important for parents to remember that children are watching and listening.

“I know my four students are becoming acutely aware of how we conduct ourselves on this topic,” Allbaugh said. “We have a real opportunity here to model for our students the respect, the civility and the grace that is commensurate with our positions as thought leaders in our very, very special Solana Beach community.”