By Collin Breaux
Days ahead of the student mask mandate being officially lifted in California, the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees chose to not allow making masks optional for students in the interim during a meeting on Wednesday night, March 2.
In a 4-3 vote, trustees rejected Trustee Lisa Davis’ proposed resolution that called for non-enforcement of mask requirements while on-campus students are indoors. Board President Martha McNicholas and Trustees Amy Hanacek, Pamela Braunstein, and Krista Castellanos voted against the resolution. Trustees Gila Jones, Judy Bullockus, and Davis voted yes.
A mandate requiring students wear masks indoors on school grounds—which has been in place throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—will be lifted by the California Department of Public Health after March 11. CUSD will follow suit and no longer require masks on students after that date.
The mask mandate and other pandemic precautions are set by the CDPH, and CUSD officials have said they must abide by them.
Davis—who represents San Clemente—has frequently spoken about student mask requirements, and previously urged the state and other officials to do away with the mandate.
“(The CDPH) provided no data to support the arbitrary start of this policy 10 days from now,” Davis said. “Our community numbers put us in the mask-optional status, according to the CDC, and there is no reason to delay this policy.”
Rises in mental health issues among students during the pandemic have been ignored, since there is more focus on masks and vaccines, Davis said.
Jones said there will soon be a mixture of masked and unmasked students.
“Everyone’s reasons are a private matter,” Jones said. “I will be profoundly disappointed if I hear of anyone being taunted, teased, bullied, or harassed for their mask choices.”
Bullockus said her constituents in Mission Viejo have urged her to stand strong on the mask issue.
“I cannot condone a continuous hurting of children,” Bullockus said. “My heart bleeds. I have felt ill for weeks over this issue.”
Student Advisor Kanei Padhya gave a symbolic no vote and spoke in favor of continuing to wear masks. Padhya said Davis’ resolution was “unnerving” and harmed the safety of students, school staff, and teachers.
“If mask mandates go away, there will be a rise in cases—not only for students but teachers,” Padhya said. “If the mask mandate were to be lifted, I think it should only be lifted if the COVID-19 vaccine gets added to the list of mandatory vaccines for public schools.”
Padhya said she will wear a mask “without a second thought” if doing so saves lives, particularly for immunocompromised people.
A separate but similar resolution directing the CUSD superintendent to have local responsibility when it comes to enforcing mask-wearing in classrooms that Jones and Bullockus co-authored was pulled by Jones after the district’s legal advisers said there could be potential “legal exposure” from it.
Some CUSD students have attempted to enter classrooms without masks as a demonstration against the mandate, which sometimes results in their being sent home and logged as an unexcused absence.
The board report for the pulled resolution said such action by the district “is in direct conflict with our mission to educate and prepare our students and our commitment to their success.”
In other news from the meeting, the Board of Trustees approved sending out informational messages to CUSD families regarding legislation that could require students get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to continue attending school in person.
Senate Bills 871 and 866 variously require the COVID-19 vaccine be added to the list of mandatory vaccinations for students and allows children ages 12 to 17 to get the vaccine regardless of parental consent.
The proposed bills are expected to be considered by state government committees soon.
CUSD officials want to send out informational messages about the legislation because of its expected impact on students, particularly over concerns some students may be pulled out of classes because they or their parents may not want them to be vaccinated.
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.