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In the News: Districts Split on Masking in San Mateo County

Original article courtesy San Mateo Daily Journal

By Sierra Lopez
Daily Journal staff  
Apr 16, 2022

Two local school districts, aligning in their caution for doing away with masking requirements for staff and students, have moved in opposite directions this week when deciding how to move forward with the requirement.
San Bruno Park School District and South San Francisco Unified School District were two of the four local districts to hold off on aligning with a change in masking guidelines from required to strongly recommended by the California Department of Public Health. The state’s announcement came late February, just ahead of spring break, which caused concern among leadership who were still facing high, though falling, omicron cases.
While Burlingame School District administrators set April 4 as the formal date for when it would make the switch, the Monday after students returned from break, leadership from the three other districts agreed to revisit the data after the vacation including San Mateo Union High School District trustees who will discuss what to do with their policy next week during their meeting scheduled for Thursday, April 21.
During meetings this week, San Bruno Park and South San Francisco appeared to go in different directions on the issue. San Bruno Park interim Superintendent Michael Milliken recommended the district continue to keep the masking mandate through the remainder of the school year, arguing during Wednesday’s board meeting that people are misinterpreting the state and county’s stance of masking.
And while the county’s vaccination rate is one of the highest in the state, with more than 90% of residents vaccinated, Milliken noted that only about 39% of students are reported to be fully vaccinated. It’s likely some families have not informed the district about their students vaccination status but Milliken shed doubt the rate is significantly higher.
“State and county health leaders have taken, in my opinion, a very strong poison that folks indoors should very much be wearing masks,” Milliken said. “We need to be mindful of the population that we’re serving and that population, we don’t have evidence they are overwhelmingly vaccinated.”
Though no vote was taken, trustees voiced support for Milliken’s recommendation. Board President Andriana Shea said some school districts that aligned with the state early on are now rethinking their decisions.
Speaking as a trustee and a physician, Vice President Henry Sanchez strongly advocated for keeping the mandate as a protective measure for immunocompromised people in the district. Sanchez also pushed back on arguments that students and faculty are already unmasking outside the classroom by noting the district’s inability to monitor where people come from and what they bring into classrooms where students and teachers will mingle for long durations.
“As a physician, if I know I can prevent something, I will stand even if I know I may be the only one, but, we as a governance team have to stand together to protect the lives of everyone especially when we know we can prevent it,” Sanchez said. “This is a small compromise to protect everyone around us.”
Alternatively, SSFUSD staff recommended the district adopt the state’s guidance to allow students and teachers to decide whether or not to mask, having discussed the issue with school administrators and received public comment that sided toward the shift.
But board President John Baker and Trustee Patricia Murray recommended a more cautious approach, arguing there was not a strong public push to do away with the requirement and noting students have instead advocated for keeping masks to ensure they can attend events like prom and graduation.
Ultimately, trustees cast a 3-2 vote in favor of following staff’s recommendation during their Thursday night meeting after a vote to extend the mandate failed.
“No decision we have had to make, as it pertains to COVID, has been easy but I come back to the data,” SSFUSD Trustee Daina Lujan said. “I feel comfortable following CDPH guidance and I hope that our community follows the recommendation that we provide of strongly recommended still means you should still wear your mask for your own well-being.”
Lujan said she’s also seen firsthand the way the shift has been safely implemented at the Jefferson Union High School District where she works in human resources. While out at district events or on campus, Lujan said she sees a majority of students wearing masks.
Looking at data from neighboring districts that aligned with the state when they made their announcement mid-March, Lujan said their case rates have not shown a large uptick, further supporting arguments to allow students and faculty to choose whether to mask or not.
Sequoia Union High School District aligned with the state early on and the move has been well received, Superintendent Darnise Williams said in a statement. The district was the hardest hit during the omicron surge this winter, experiencing nearly 2,000 cases between staff and students. Since allowing a choice around masking, 98 cases have been reported, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“Overall, the school community has more than adapted to the change and staff and students have been respectful of masking decisions. The district continues implementing a robust contact tracing program and remains transparent about COVID cases in our district. We provide valuable resources for testing and continue to monitor and follow the state and county’s guidelines,” Williams said in the statement.
Similarly, a total of 85 cases have been reported at the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District. Superintendent Dan Deguara said his school community has adapted to the change and has been supported by district staff regardless of what decision is made, though anecdotal evidence shows most appear to continue to be masking.
“We want our schools to be a place where all perspectives are valued and this includes fostering an environment where all feel comfortable choosing to wear or not to wear a face covering. Masks have played an important role in making schools safe places for students to learn and adults to work,” Deguara said.
Millbrae School District campuses were among the list of districts to allow families to decide when to mask starting March 14 and Superintendent Debbie French said the policy switch has gone over well so far, to the credit of staff, students and the district community.
“We really asked our community and staff to be sensitive coming back off of spring break and strongly suggested wearing masks for a few weeks and everyone has done that,” French said. “It’s a pandemic. We have had to make difficult decisions and shift and be very fluid and responsive but I think, overall, we’ve handled this with a lot of grace for one another and ourselves.”
Burlingame School District Superintendent Chris Mount-Benites said he was lobbied by parents on either side of the debate but he stands by the district’s decision to wait until after spring break to lift the mandate because the move gave parents peace of mind that their children would be less at risk after returning from break.
Before the policy changed from a requirement to a recommendation, Mount-Benites said schools held lessons on the issue to help students understand masking would be a choice and that every family will have to make an individual decision on what’s best for them. Since the change was implemented nearly two weeks ago, he said a majority of families seem to be continuing to mask.
Like French, Mount-Benites said the pandemic has been a challenge for school districts, especially due to the state’s practice of announcing changes through press conferences, which has forced administrators to attempt to explain the state’s thinking on policy changes to families. State officials did so again Thursday, when they announced a shift away from mandating vaccines for students starting next school year, walking back another promise to districts.
“I certainly wish the state would be consistent,” Mount-Benites said. “It leaves all of us in the public sector to figure out how to navigate the changes and as a public employee it’s tough.”
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