Parents question Del Mar district’s message on school masking

Former Ocean Air P
Former Ocean Air Principal Ryan Stanley welcomed student Maeva Chappaz on the first day of school in 2020.
(Bill Wechter/San Diego Union Tribune)

State is expected to announce updated school mask guidance on Feb. 28


After California’s mask mandate for indoor spaces was lifted on Feb. 16, many school districts are facing questions from parents and students about when the masks will be allowed to come off in the classroom.

In neighboring Rancho Santa Fe School District, the board voted to make student masks optional as of Feb. 22, the first district in San Diego County to take that step against the state mandate in an effort to restore local control in determining what is in the best interest of its students.

In the Del Mar Union School District, some parents were upset by an email message that the district sent out on Feb. 15 stating that the district was “disappointed” to learn that the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) was not yet lifting the mask mandate for schools.

“While we follow the state mandates, we continue to be focused on the importance of returning to a normal childhood for our students. Although mask mandates were lifted for vaccinated individuals in almost all public settings, the mandate continues to exist for schools,” the message stated. “The unintended consequences of children being required to wear masks for multiple years should be paramount when making decisions that directly impact children’s learning and mental health.”

Some parents said they were shocked by the district openly disagreeing with the CDPH’s policies and found the message to be biased, politicized and not factual. At the board’s Feb. 16 meeting, a group of parents spoke out against unmasking too soon.

“I agree we need to start lifting restrictions. It’s reasonable to mask optionally outdoors, welcome back volunteers and families at drop off, restart school assemblies and field trips,” said parent Linda Liu. “However, now is not the time to unmask children ages 5-11. Vaccination rates in this group are too low and overall rates of COVID are still quite high.”

Liu said it was “dangerous and irresponsible” for the district to suggest a link between masking and the mental health crisis in children.

“Our district values excellence over mediocrity. Striving for excellence should apply to our district’s public health,” Liu said. “Our schools ought to mitigate unnecessary risk. As leaders, the burden falls on you to make responsible and thoughtful rules to keep kids safe so they can succeed.”

Throughout the pandemic, Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Holly McClurg has always advocated for the importance of children being in school in- person and the district was one of the first in the county to open full-time, in-person with a distance learning option in fall 2020. At the January board meeting, she spoke out about the need for children to return to a normal school experience.

“We have three-year-olds that don’t know a world without a pandemic and without masks,” McClurg said. “Fourth grade students have not had a typical year since first grade.

“When we talk about a normal school experience it’s an experience without masks, without restrictions that limit interactions with peers and where healthy children aren’t told that they’re not allowed to come to school. We have to return to a normal childhood for children,” McClurg said. “Our schools are among most heavily restricted and we’ve got to have the unnecessary mandates end.”

On Feb. 16, DMUSD board Clerk Gee Wah Mok said the district’s message represented the views of the administration and not necessarily the views of the board or his own personal views. He said the key point is that the district continues to follow the CDPH guidelines and they will monitor them closely.

“The pandemic has been extremely trying for all of us, it’s been over two years of our lives upended, constantly adjusting to protect the health and safety of our loved ones and our community,” Mok said. “While we all seek a return to normalcy for many of us the pandemic is still all too real.”

Mok acknowledged that society won’t remain in a state of emergency forever and there are fortunately better tools to manage the pandemic now than there were two years ago. He said it will be important for the district to move into the next phase with grace and understanding.

“As guidance changes, teachers and staff must recognize that there are ranges of students and families with various risk tolerances within our community,” Mok said. “Thoughtful gestures and respect for others’ level of comfort will be ever so important. It will be an opportunity to show the best of who we are, guided by our compassion and our empathy.”

The state is expected to make an announcement on Feb. 28 about its school mask mandate and other school guidance. State officials have said they are taking more time to look at COVID data and to work with partner groups across the state before changing the mask mandate.

At the meeting, McClurg said whatever decisions are made by the state health agencies and the local authority, the district would make sure they move ahead thoughtfully and carefully.