VUSD lifts outdoor mask mandate

Reversal on outdoor masking is applauded by parents, band instructors and students and removes all COVID-19 safety protocols more restrictive than state guidance

VISALIA – Some parents, band students and board members breathed a sigh of relief last week after Visalia Unified school board lifted the district’s outdoor mask mandate just a week after it was implemented.

At its Aug. 24 meeting, the VUSD board voted to do away with masking outdoors by approving the district would only adhere to state and local guidelines on COVID-19 safety protocols and would not implement any protocols more restrictive than those prescribed by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Tulare County Public Health. The motion by trustee John Crabtree was applauded by those in attendance and passed on a 6-1 vote.

Although masks are no longer mandated outdoors for students and VUSD staff at schools and at VUSD facilities, assistant superintendent Doug Cardoza, who became interim superintendent today, Sept. 1, reminded the board that “Masks are one of the most effective and simplest safety mitigation layers to prevent in-school transmission of COVID-19 infections and to support full time in-person instruction in K-12 schools,” per CDPH recommendations.

VUSD COVID-19 protocols will now follow the CDPH COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools in California published on Aug. 2, 2021, regarding universal masking. Universal masking means everyone (if able) should wear a mask indoors and outdoors.

According to CDPH, universal masking permits modified quarantine practices under certain COVID-19 exposure conditions in K-12 settings. When both parties are unvaccinated, wearing a mask and come in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID, can continue to attend school if they are asymptomatic and continue to wear a mask. If those same people are not wearing masks, must quarantine for at least 10 days, or seven days if they have a negative test five days after exposure, even if they are asymptomatic. Simply put, students wearing masks miss less time in school if they are exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The outdoor masking mandate went into effect on Aug. 18 after the VUSD board president Juan Guerrero and clerk Walta Gamoian were consulted on the safety measure as cases among school-aged children had increased by one-third in the last month. The mandate applied to all VUSD schools and facilities and at all school functions, including extra-curricular event, such as sports, and co-curricular events, such as band.

Prior to the vote, trustee Megan Casebeer Soleno, the only trustee to vote against the decision, asked if students were having trouble keeping masks on for the entire day, including outdoors. Cardoza said masking had gone well and more than half of students were wearing masks outside when he visited Golden West High School before the outdoor mask mandate went into effect.

“We had no major issues,” Cardoza said.

Cardoza told the board he has never taken advantage of the trust the public has placed in the district to keep kids safe but would follow the direction of the board.

“This is my 32nd year in education and I never erred on the side of taking risks with your children,” Cardoza told the crowd. “I will follow this guidance and do the best we can to keep our kids safe.”

Brittany Christenson, who has been challenging the board’s policies throughout the pandemic, said the action to end rules more restrictive than state guidelines was a step in the right direction, but only the first step. She reminded the board there are districts within the county and throughout the state who continue to hold pep rallies, dances, and in-person back-to-school nights yet are on the same insurance and use the same attorneys as VUSD.

“These districts are far more accommodating to their students and families than VUSD has been,” Christenson said. “These are policies that favor liability and over-cautiousness over enrichment and education are not fair to our students. It is not fair for the school district to act as a public health entity.”

The decision also opens the door to more traditional band practices and performances, allowing band directors like El Diamante High School’s Kristin Pallas to properly prepare for marching band competitions and field shows. She said bell covers for the brass instruments would have been a better solution than masks for playing instruments outdoors. Pallas said she understood the district’s caution during the pandemic. She herself has worn her mask outside her home religiously, stayed home by herself during the holidays to avoid possible transmission and got the vaccine the first chance she could. She said she is only asking the board to follow the same guidelines schools across the country are using to safely practice playing instruments outdoors and the research behind it, such as using bell covers for brass instruments, which would more effectively prevent saliva from leaving the instrument than a mask.

“This is how seriously I take the pandemic, how seriously I take safety and how seriously I take the safety of my students,” Pallas said. “Please let us hold our activity in a manner which is conducive to learning.”

Earlier in the meeting, band student Dominic Mascia demonstrated how the outdoor masking requirement made it difficult to play his instrument. He acted as if he was marching and then counted off the beats until it was time for him to play again. He then had to use one hand to move the flap of the mask out of the way, bring the clarinet to his lips through the mask and then place his hand back onto the proper keys to play.

“If we have to compete with these restrictions, we will get nowhere in these competitions,” Mascia said.

Dominic’s father, Nick Mascia, asked why the district ever had the policy when no federal or state guidelines required masks outdoors.

“Seems to be another example of providing partial data to paint a predetermined picture,” Mascia said. “Another study, which came out after found outdoors remain the safest place to perform and no restrictions are needed.”

Cardoza said every decision the school district has made was to err on the side of caution for students. He said getting students back onto campus has been the district’s main focus, with new cases began to spike, especially at VUSD school sites. Cardoza shared earlier in the meeting that during a four-day span from Aug. 20-24, employees isolating or quarantining due to a positive COVID-19 test increased from 96 to 161 and students being quarantined as a result of close contact to someone who tested positive went from 169 to 241. There were 30 notifications of a classroom exposure during that time.

“There is a lot of healing that has to happen in our community and we need to move forward with that,” Cardoza said. “Move forward with whatever guidance we are following and do what is best for kids.”

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