It’s clear: Local school districts must enforce California’s mandate that all students wear face coverings indoors on K-12 campuses to slow the spread of COVID-19.
What isn’t clear: how schools will be allowed to do that when classes resume for full-time in-person instruction in a few weeks.
Guidance from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released, and then revised, July 12 reads, “…schools should offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.”
The Los Alamitos Unified School District is trying to determine what that means and what can be done if a student won’t mask up indoors.
“There’s still ambiguity. I don’t have clarity on that,” LAUSD Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver said at the July 20 LAUSD Board of Education meeting, noting administrators statewide have been confused by the guidance.
Pulver said his suggestions, such as putting an unmasked student three feet apart from others with a desk shield, have been shot down by public health officials.
LAUSD is keeping parents posted with a link on LosAl.org.
An email sent to district families on July 21 read: “At this time, we continue to review the new guidance and seek further clarification in some areas to determine how it will impact the 2021-22 school year.”
The letter then states that LAUSD students “who do not comply with universal mask wearing guidance may be placed in an alternative learning setting.”
Last year LAUSD offered the virtual learning option LosAl@Home, but that won’t continue in the 2021-22 year. In an email to parents sent July 27, LAUSD said it’s partnering with the Orange County Department of Education to offer a home remote/schooling option. For grades TK-8, the Independent Study program is through enrollment in OCDE’s Community Home Education Program (CHEP) and for grades 9-12, it’s through enrollment at Pacific Coast High School (PCHS).
The emphasis from education officials is still to maximize in-person instruction time for students.
CDPH argues universal indoor masking is key to offering full-time instruction because it allows for no social distancing requirements. Initially, California’s rules went beyond the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that vaccinated teachers and students can ditch their masks indoors.
But on Tuesday, facing the spreading Delta variant of COVID-19, CDC updated its guidelines to align with California and is encouraging universal indoor masking for all students, staff, teachers and visitors on K-12 school campuses.
Last week, parent groups filed a lawsuit in San Diego County over the state’s mask mandate, which applies to K-12 public, private and charter schools.
Masks are optional outdoors. Vaccinated teachers will be allowed to go without a face mask indoors when students are not present. Students with medical conditions that qualify for an exemption 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.”
Pulver emphasized that public health decisions are made at the state level and local school districts and Boards don’t craft the rules. He said he meets weekly with Orange County’s top public health official, Dr. Clayton Chau; a conduit to state officials.
CDPH has not spelled out the consequences school districts face for not enforcing the mask mandate but it appears fines are possible.
In an email sent on Monday, Orange County Department of Education spokesman Ian Hanigan wrote: “Employees are required to follow the California Education Code along with all other legal requirements and public health orders from the state. Moreover, districts and schools can face fines for failing to adhere to Cal/OSHA standards designed to protect employees in the workplace.”
At the July 20 meeting, Pulver mentioned that negotiations with district staff may be necessary as LAUSD COVID-19 protocols are established.
CDPH stated it will issue a revision of its school guidance no later than Nov. 1, 2021.
In an email sent to a reporter on Monday, Pulver wrote “guidance for sports, band, music, performing arts, and activities should be released soon.” LAUSD is also looking for more detail on rules governing volunteers and parents on campuses.
New Quarantine Protocols for Close Contacts
Quarantine rules have been eased for people deemed close contacts of COVID infected people on campuses to minimize missing out on in-person instruction.
“This … could be a game changer for keeping kids in school,” Pulver said and added the district will continue to use its COVID dashboard to track cases.
Here’s what happens if the people involved are unvaccinated and all parties were masked: If a person is deemed a close contact (within 6 feet of a COVID infected person indoors for more than 15 minutes over a 24-hour period) they can continue to attend school and extracurricular activities if they are asymptomatic, continue to wear a mask, and undergo twice-weekly testing for a quarantine period of ten days.
The close contact protocols change if the people involved are unvaccinated and unmasked. If one person was not wearing a mask, the close contact has to quarantine for 14 days. That could be cut to 10 days if they remain asymptomatic and drops to 7 days if they test negative 5 days after the exposure.
People diagnosed with COVID-19 must follow existing CDPH quarantine guidelines. For vaccinated people that means no quarantining or testing as long as they remain asymptomatic.
Other layers of prevention at LAUSD schools include: handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, cleaning, and disinfection and ventilation. Pulver reported air filters were replaced districtwide this summer.
Frustration with Mask Mandate
At the board meeting, Pulver expressed frustration with the mask requirement saying he was hoping the state would also consider the science of the “whole child” including students’ social, emotional and behavioral health.
“Over 70% of communication is nonverbal. And when you have a face mask it’s very hard to read those social … cues in communication,” Pulver said at the July 20 meeting.
It was a view shared by board members including Meg Cutuli and President Marlys Davidson.
“If we don’t address the mental health of our children none of this is going to matter. I feel like I want to know who’s in the room making these decisions because I think they are addressing the physical [health] and that’s it,” Davidson said.
Pulver said last year the science suggested children were at lower risk for transmitting COVID-19 but the concern was kids could spread it to more vulnerable adults in their lives.
“I think that argument is now gone,” Pulver said citing widespread access to vaccines for adults, which have proven effective against preventing severe illness.
“I suggested that [the state] consider masks optional so that people can make their own personal decisions and that maybe making it a mandate when an outbreak occurs,” Pulver said with the caveat “I’m only a superintendent, so what do I know? I’m not a public health officer.”
During public comment at the July 20 meeting, a woman spoke against the mask mandate, almost breaking into tears. She passed out copies of a research letter studying carbon dioxide levels of children wearing masks published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association on June 30.
JAMA retracted the research letter on July 16 citing concerns about its methodology and “uncertainty regarding the validity of the findings and conclusions, and the potential public health implications.”
At the July 20 meeting, Pulver said CDPH issued a statement it claimed “debunked” the JAMA article but he admitted he didn’t know what to believe. (He was not aware of the retraction at the time).
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended everyone age two and older continue to wear masks inside classrooms.
“As we start the 2021-22 school year, a large portion of students are not eligible to be vaccinated and there are COVID variants that are more contagious. Because of this and because we want to have all students in school, the AAP advocates for all students, teachers and staff to wear masks while indoors in school.”
School is set to begin at LAUSD as the more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 fuels a spike in cases, including in Orange County, but most severely in parts of the U.S. with low vaccination rates. Vaccines have yet to be approved for people under the age of 12.
LAUSD remains committed to its goal: “We will resume a traditional, full-time, on-campus learning model, while continuing to follow the mandated guidance as set forth by CDPH and the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA).”
The school year starts next week for students at Weaver Elementary in Rossmoor. The other LAUSD campuses start on August 16.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since it appeared in the July 28, 2021 print edition of the Event-News Enterprise to update a meeting date that was incorrect, reflect new information from LAUSD on independent study programs and new mask guidance from the CDC.