Districts insist on control over masks

Sundale Elementary, Sequoia Union, Farmersville and Exeter school districts take independent stance on state mask mandate after returning to full in-person instruction

TULARE COUNTY – The fall semester began last week in Tulare County as one of the most confusing school years ever, second only to 2020-21.

On July 12, California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released its guidance for the upcoming school year amidst a national rise in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations among the unvaccinated population due to a surge in cases involving the more transmissible and deadly delta variant of the virus. The guidance called for universal masking in all indoor settings, including classrooms. CDPH said students who were not eligible for an exemption and refused to wear a mask would be required to move to an alternative education form, such as distance learning or independent study.

Later that same day, CDPH tweeted the masking enforcement would be updated and clarified “recognizing local schools’ experience in keeping students and educators safe while ensuring schools fully reopen for in-person instruction.” The next day, CDPH released a statement saying “Mask enforcement will continue to be handled by local schools as the state recognizes the unique needs of each district and child.”

Among the first schools to start the fall semester was Sundale Union Elementary School District. The K-8 district north of Tulare opened school saying it would “encourage” all students to comply with masking guidelines but said it would not sacrifice instructional time with “enforcement actions.” This in effect, made masking voluntary.

The policy was approved by its board of trustees on July 27 citing the need to focus on student well-being and learning gaps due to COVID. “District staff will direct all of its resources toward ensuring every student gets the best mental health services and education possible as well as engaging students with gaps in learning due to COVID disruption and challenges during the past school year.” The statement went on to say Sundale will continue to deploy COVID prevention measures and encourage everyone to take public health precautions and follow CDC and CDPH guidelines but that it also “remains committed to advocating for local control on issues of this nature.”

As of Aug. 2, CDPH guidance once again stated universal masking requirements for teachers, staff and students while in the classroom. The Aug. 2 guidance also required schools to “develop and implement local protocols to enforce the mask requirements.” Rufert said Sundale has carried over many of its protocols from last school year and sent out reminders about proper mask wearing and hand washing, forms for staff certification of symptoms, daily cleaning and sanitizing, personal protective equipment for all staff, students and teachers, PCR tests available for everyone on campus and will soon offer antigen, or rapid testing.

“There are far too many to list,” Rufert said.

Sequoia Union School District implemented a similar rule in a different way. The K-8 school district in Lemon Cove held a special board meeting on Aug. 2, just a few days before the semester was set to begin. The board of trustees voted to allow parents who believe their student should be exempt from wearing a face covering to have the option of filing a Student Mask Exemption Attestation form on file with the district.

“We have carefully weighed our stakeholder opinions, the health of our students and staff, and our legal obligations to comply with CDC/CDPH,” the board’s action stated.

In its most recent guidance, CDPH said self-attestation forms did not qualify as legitimate exemptions from the indoor masking rule. “Self-attestation and parental attestation for mask exemptions due to the aforementioned conditions do not constitute medical determinations,” according to CDPH. Additionally, “persons exempted from wearing a face covering due to a medical condition, must wear a non-restrictive alternative, such as a face shield with a drape on the bottom edge, as long as their condition permits it.”

The only exemptions to the rule will be children younger than 2, people with medical or mental health conditions or disabilities preventing them from wearing a mask, the hearing impaired or those working with them or anyone working in an environment where the mask would put them in danger, such as working on heavy machinery.

A student at Freedom Elementary School closes his parent's passenger door during drop-off at the school. All students, and teachers are mandated to wear masks while at school, although not outside.Photo by Jermaine Johnson II

Also opening on Aug. 5 was Farmersville Unified School District, which took an entirely different direction on masks despite being just 14 miles west along Highway 198.

“We have had almost zero issues with students or staff regarding wearing of face masks,” Farmersville superintendent Paul Sevillano said. “Everyone is following the CDPH mask guidelines.”

Farmersville’s decision to enforce the mask mandate has had very little affect on student attendance and enrollment. Sevillano said the district did develop a concurrent model for Independent Study, where teachers are broadcasting live from their classrooms to student at home, but only 4% of the district’s 2,500 students elected not to return to the classroom. In addition to masking, Farmersville kept all of its COVID safety protocols from last school year and implemented new ones including an online parent registration system to ensure we could register all students virtually while keeping everyone safe.

“We appreciate our parents for trusting staff to keep their students safe at school,” Sevillano said. “It was great seeing all the students return to back school on opening day.”

Exeter Unified School Board voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting local authority over masking, last week. The resolution stated that “local school boards and parents are the traditional and logical decision-makers for students.” It goes on to say that students have been going about “normal routines” without a mask, and for that reason they should not be required to wear a mask at school.

Down the list of reasons not to wear a mask was student education. The resolution states, “the ability to see, appreciate and communicate through facial expressions is crucial to a child’s social development, mental health and physical wellbeing.” It adds, “mask wearing may disproportionately impact children who are attempting to learn English as a second language, as it impedes their ability to process their non-native language.”

The resolution fell firmly in the arena of local control over safety protocols. The resolution states that the board would like the state to: support parental choice in masking children; support school district in finding students the opportunity to safely return to a normal classroom setting; and seek the assistance of state and federal governmental agencies and elected officials involved in school safety protocols in returning safety authority to local school districts and their governing boards.

Exeter Unified School District Superintendent, George Eddy said that despite the resolution, the district still has a mandate to enforce masking on campus while indoors. He said the resolution is more of an attempt to communicate to the state that districts want local control over the COVID-19 safety protocol. A copy of the passed resolution was sent to the Tulare County Superintendent of Schools, the California Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, all members of Congress who represent Tulare County, the Governor of California and the California Department of Public Health.

Nothing explicit has been handed down from the state of California if schools do not follow masking mandates. However, Eddy said that some funding might be revoked.

“We did receive some COVID monies that [needed] assurances that we will be following the guidelines. So, there’s a possibility that they might take that money back from us if we don’t follow the mandate,” Eddy said.

The district received half of a $2.8 million allotment in May to put toward COVID. Eddy said the money could be spent on air quality and hiring more instructional staff and adding more social-emotional learning and staff members.

For all intents and purposes, it appears as though Exeter Unified campuses will follow through on masking students. But that is not the only precaution they are takings. While students will not have their temperature taken when first coming onto campus, there will be temperature stations at the nurse’s office and front office of school sites.

Save for the hoopla of whether to fight masking or not, Eddy said that he was happy students are coming back to school at all.

“There are really no other mandates that are placed on us. And you know, we need to celebrate that we are having all of the kids back full time in person. You know, we that’s a great change from last year and it’s going to be awesome for our students,” Eddy said.

-Correction: The original version of this story stated Sundale Union School District did not return emails for comment on what COVID-19 prevention measures and safety protocols were being taken during the current school year. Sundale Superintendent Terri Rufert did respond to The Sun-Gazette’s request with detailed information on safety protocols before deadline. The line in the article stating they did not was deleted from the story and there was not enough space to include safety protocol measures for Sundale and other schools. Unfortunately, due to some technical issues, the wrong version of the story was place on the page and uploaded to digital platforms. The Sun-Gazette takes full responsibility for this error and thanks Sundale for its cooperation in reporting on their school. The story has been updated to reflect this.

This article was updated at 9:05 a.m. PST on Aug. 13, 2021.

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