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Mask or no mask? CUSD weighs options – podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced last week vaccinated people were no longer required to wear masks indoors beginning March 1, and that after March 11, “schools and child care facilities, masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended.

Just what that proclamation will mean for Claremont Unified School District was yet to be decided at press time Thursday. The plan, said CUSD Assistant Superintendent, Human Services, Kevin Ward, is for Superintendent Jeff Wilson to make an announcement by Friday, whether or not a decision has been made.

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“We need to be thoughtful and make a good determination here,” Ward said Tuesday. “There’s [determining] where the [CUSD] board’s at, reaching to our associations and making sure there’s no concerns on their part. That’s the work that’s going on right now.”

A number of school districts in the region — Bonita Unified, Etiwanda, and Rancho Cucamonga among them — have already made the choice to move from requiring indoor masking to “strongly recommending it,’ Ward said. Typically, CUSD will weight its decision carefully.

“Claremont is very process driven, and we’re being a little bit more process [driven] than some of the other districts that have come out right away and made the determination,” Ward said. “There are factors to consider. There are groups to check in with.”

Throughout the pandemic, opinions from Claremont families and students have been split about 50-50 when it comes to support for masking, Ward said. But CUSD must weigh the impact a possible move of not requiring masks will have on teachers, staff and administrators as well.

“So I think, when you look at making decisions for the health and wellbeing, we have to think of it for the health and wellbeing of our students and our staff,” Ward said. “Those are the people that we protect. So we want to make decisions based on the pandemic, based on the disease, based on the case rates, based on the amount of people that we’re testing, based on transmission rates, based on the fact that we haven’t had any outbreaks. That is hopefully where you make the decision out of, and that’s the metric that you use.”

Another important factor, as Ward referenced above, is just how a dial-back of COVID protocols will sit with the district’s two unions, the Claremont Faculty Association and the California School Employees Association. Each hammered out deals with the district last year to return to in-person instruction. At the time, both groups seemed to take a more conservative approach to COVID mitigation protocols such as masking. Does CUSD anticipate pushback now that things are moving in the other direction?

“That’s a good question,” Ward said. “I really think that we’re going to have folks that are going to have concerns about the no-masking in terms of being a requirement. And I think that’s going to come from a lot of different levels. That’s going to come from families, and I definitely have staff members who are going to be concerned about that from a policy standpoint.

“We also have some concerns about really making this decision based on our health and our metrics. So, I think we’re going to see concerns from all groups, from both sides of the issue.”

It’s unclear how that negotiation process will play out, with protocols likely heading in the other direction. The bottom line is even if the state recommends doing away with indoor masking at school sites, there remain at-risk immunocompromised students and staff, and those who simply would rather stay with indoor masking out of an abundance of caution.

“So you have to be cognizant of all those things when you make these decisions,” Ward said.

At its core, the governor’s February 28 proclamation was a politically expedient dodge. Newsom said the state is now moving from required to strongly recommended masking, but that school districts can make decisions based on metrics in their own areas. Unlike the initial move nearly two years ago to mandatory indoor public masking across the state, it was a low-risk edict.

“That was an interesting carve-out that makes life a little bit more difficult,” Ward said. “Because you don’t have a statewide directive like many of the requirements in the pandemic initially issued to us. You have this caveat of, well, you have some local control here. Of course you’re going to have people voice their concerns on both sides of the issue.”

Indeed. With support among students and families at 50-50, no matter which way CUSD goes — whether it stays with indoor masking or does away with it — half of its constituents will be unhappy. And the district’s employees are another matter altogether.

“We want to be cognizant that we’re providing a setting for them that allows them to partake in the things we all like to partake it, and not be put in tremendous danger,” Ward said.

Preliminary reports indicate LAUSD and San Diego Unified may be sticking with indoor masking for the time being.

“You could potentially have some large school districts, sticking with masking,” Ward said. “Certainly there’s local school districts I’m hearing about. I believe Hacienda-La Puente has already come out with the statement that we’re not changing indoor mask requirements, that they’re going to finish out the year this way.”

Another key consideration is what happens if the district does away with indoor masking and the virus spikes again later this year or next? Is it even possible to convince folks who’ve finally done away with their masks to put them back on?

“L.A. County [DPH] and the other health professionals are indicating this is all based on the metrics, that if the metrics pop back up again we’re going to put some of these restrictions back into place,” Ward said. “But yeah, we all know how that’s going to go over.”

Though there’s still a ways to go before it’s a settled issue, it’s undeniably good news that the metrics are such that we are able to have a real discussion about the possibility of doing away with indoor masking.

“Absolutely,” Ward agreed. “I think it’s really positive that our state is reaching such low levels of spread and transmission that we can start pulling back some of these requirements. It’s absolutely good news.”

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