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Masks off, fingers crossed at CUSD – podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Nearly two years to the day from when they abruptly shut their doors after the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, Claremont schools will reach a symbolic milestone Monday when masks will no longer be required on their campuses.

“I see this as a great opportunity to sort of be reborn at the school sites,” said Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Wilson. “And I can’t wait to get on campuses and see the full, smiling faces of our kids next week. That’s gonna make my year.”

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California Governor Gavin Newsom’s September 28 announcement, that at “schools and child care facilities, masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended,” no doubt leaves many feeling a sense of relief. There are some who will continue to mask up though, either due to being immunocompromised or living with someone who is, or out of an abundance of caution.

“I know it is welcome news to many people, and a little concerning to many people as well, and we have to be cognizant of that,” said CUSD Assistant Superintendent, Human Services Kevin Ward. “But, personally I think it’ll be nice — for those that are ready — to be able to take them off indoors and see their smiles again.”

As COVID bore down and the news became increasingly grim, most schools throughout California shut their doors Friday, March 13, 2020. The word then was it would be a week or two, then kids would be back on campuses. That didn’t happen for 13 months.

Since March 2020 CUSD has redesigned much of its infrastructure to reflect the new normal. It implemented an entirely online education model for all of its approximately 6,800 students, with several options. When things began to look like schools may reopen partially last year, it worked to create hybrid programs, with cohorts and staggered schedules, COVID testing and quarantine protocols, and still offered online distance learning for students reticent to return to campus.

All the while the schools themselves underwent changes in cleaning procedures, had new air filtration systems installed, and classrooms and offices were adjusted to conform with state and county social distancing requirements. These and scores of other changes to the pre-COVID way of doing things meant constant adjustments for teachers, students, administrators and families. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, and the new normal didn’t work for every student. But the district, it must be said, did its best to balance the concerns of its staff, students and families against the hard backdrop of state and county mandates that usually left it with little or no wiggle room.

All this to say it’s been a long, somewhat traumatic two years, and this new wrinkle in what feels like an endless loop of despair/hope/despair/hope is just about the best news CUSD has had since the before times.

“I think for us at school sites and in the district office it’s relief, because we’ve been at sort of the nexus of this debate, where I believe folks are frustrated because they really don’t have a voice at the federal, state or even I would say county level,” Wilson said. “And so, those frustrations are borne in our meetings and in communications with our board members, and with superintendents, principals and right down to the site level, where we’ve seen some confrontations with parents and principals.

“And that’s a frustration because there’s very little that we have the ability to do other than share the concerns of our community with lawmakers and rule-makers.”

The district’s two unions, the Claremont Faculty Association and the California School Employees Association, who both spent weeks hammering out agreements with the district over the multitude of changes to their working conditions, are now again faced with   shifting sands. This time though instead of adding new changes, things are being subtracted, so it would figure the negotiations are somewhat less arduous. But the fact that the state and county gave school districts just days to prepare for the lifting of the mask mandate has both associations scrambling to get the word out to its members and has left some questions unanswered.

With the quick turnaround there was little time to “pulse check,” CFA President Kara Evans said. The group’s executive board leadership had several long conversations while it was negotiating with the district to help shape the language to make its members more comfortable. Still, the union supports the decision.

“I think it was the right move, because like I said, L.A. County tends to be cautious, and cases are so low,” Evans told the COURIER. “I am a little worried about a surge after spring break, and I was hoping we would delay a little bit, but I also recognize they’re doing some other things to mitigate that surge, like sending home tests.”

Ginny Stewart, the new president of CSEA, echoed Evans’ comments, saying she too has mixed feelings.

“Probably a little bit of both,” Stewart said. “I think we’re going to be okay with that, but I do feel that we’ll probably be handling things differently in the future, like gathering and things and hanging out and all that stuff. I’m for it, and we’ll just see how it goes.”

The district’s board of directors also weighed in, throwing its support behind the move.

“We are relieved that it will be less of a burden for the families who didn’t want to wear the masks, and we are grateful for the families who didn’t want to wear the masks and still supported the schools who were following the directives of LA County,” Board President Steven Llanusa said.

With masks now optional, the battle for those who did not support masking at all — quite a vocal minority over the past two years — would seem to be over. Interestingly, it may now be those who choose to continue to wear masks indoors or out that may be feeling stigmatized. The district has thought this through, Wilson said.

“Not only are we saying they can [continue to wear masks], we’re encouraging any folks — students, staff, teachers — who make that choice, we want to make sure they know we’re in full support of them,” the superintendent said. “Let me be blunt: we’re not going to tolerate any sort of bullying from those who might see that as a political act.

“We want to definitely encourage the appropriate choices of individuals here, including those who would choose to continue to mask.”

Of course the looming possibility of another COVID surge could upend all this good feeling. It’s certainly not a guarantee that the numbers will swell, but as we’ve seen over the past two years, the virus does nothing if not ebb and flow.

Thankfully, consumers and doctors have more tools in their toolkits now than ever before: pills that reportedly help prevent severe COVID have been approved on an emergency basis by the Food and Drug Administration, including Paxlovid and Molnupiravir; more Americans are vaccinated and boosted now than prior to previous surges; home antigen COVID test kits are widely available; and hospitals for the time being aren’t inundated.

But if all these prophylactics aren’t enough, and cases spike to dangerous levels once again, there’s no doubt state and county health agencies will mandate masks for public schools. What then?

“I always hearken back to — and this may be a little Pollyannaish — but I believe that when folks’ emotions run high, it’s not because they’re bad people; I think it’s because they have very, very strong beliefs about things,” Wilson said. “I guess what I would continue to ask folks is to understand the position that a public school district is in, and how we must respond, and how we are subject to the same sorts of rules that other businesses are dependent on.”

Ward, whom the COURIER has relied on for weekly COVID updates for two years now, was blunt:

“Yeah, that’s the $10,000 question,” he said. “Certainly I think if we go into the higher levels and have to put indoor masking back into place, I think you’re going to have a lot of upset people.”

So for now — and with luck, for months to come — many kids, faculty, staff and administrators are getting a major lift from the surprisingly liberating act of dropping their masks.

“I would say my initial response would be relief,” Wilson said. “This is something I think that we all want.”

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