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By Collin Breaux
Capistrano Unified School District officials are anticipating the potential lifting of mask requirements on campuses in the near future.
Those expectations come after a recent announcement by California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, who said the state would reexamine student mask requirements on Feb. 28.
Local education officials addressed the continuing mask mandate—which has been a controversial issue with parents and students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—during a Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 16.
A large crowd again showed up in the board room and outside the CUSD offices during the meeting to denounce student mask requirements, a frequent occurrence over the past two years.
The board recessed the meeting during oral communications—the portion of the meeting when public speakers address items not on meeting agendas and usually an open forum—and resumed the meeting after moving to a back room and away from the dais, following intense public comments calling on CUSD officials to act against mask requirements.
CUSD Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte said the board was “safe” after resuming the meeting away from the public.
“I know many of you, in person and online, are here to speak about state mandates regarding masks in public school classrooms,” Brulte said. “Today, we need your support more than ever. We deeply respect the right of free speech and the diversity of opinions related to state mandates here in CUSD. We hear the frustration, the passion, and the very different opinions.”
Disagreements over state health guidelines have impacted campuses, and the fight over such requirements does not belong on school sites, Brulte said. Local schools do not make the rules, but they must comply with them, Brulte said.
School districts that defy the mandates set by the California Department of Public Health are being “threatened” with fines from the state, loss of insurance, and “exorbitant” liability claims should someone become sick “or even worse,” Brulte said.
“I have personally worked with the Orange County superintendents, (Orange County Health Officer) Dr. (Clayton) Chau, and the Orange County Health Care Agency. I’ve even worked to get a call into the governor’s office and the CDPH to share our concerns,” Brulte said.
“Additionally, all Orange County superintendents sent a letter to the governor and Dr. Mark Ghaly at the CDPH asking for a reasonable timeline and for easing restrictive masking requirements and other restrictive protocols,” she continued.
Indoor mask requirements were recently lifted in California for fully vaccinated individuals, but they remain in place for all children and adults on school campuses. Students do not have to wear masks on campuses if they are outside, such as at lunch or recess.
Trustee Judy Bullockus said she would not be bringing forward a proposed resolution urging local school districts to assert more control over pandemic-era decisions, because the superintendent’s letter expressed similar concerns. Bullockus pulled the resolution from the agenda of a previous meeting.
“We hope Feb. 28 will bring us good news,” Bullockus said.
Bullockus said she would like to bring a resolution for potential approval at a March meeting that would allow the district to send out an informational email to families alerting them of legislation requiring students be vaccinated against COVID-19 to continue attending school.
The legislation, Senate Bill 871, or the Keep Schools Open and Safe Act, is still under consideration, and it has not currently been approved or become law.
“Students, I see you. I hear you. I know you are acting as a citizen of the United States of America, and sharing your thoughts and feelings on what you feel should be changed,” said Trustee Lisa Davis, a vocal opponent of student mask and vaccine requirements.
“We have to consider the ramifications of student-led protests in school,” she continued. “We can no longer sit back while millions of kids across our country go to school with mask choice and not give our students the same opportunity.”
In other news from the meeting, the board approved a pay increase for substitute teachers. Substitute teachers who work up to 10 days will now be paid $185 a day, a $10 increase.
CUSD has seen a dramatic increase in the need for substitute teachers, particularly in January as the omicron variant surged and led to many teachers being out the classroom.
The substitute pay increase will continue through June 30. Substitute teachers will be paid $195 a day if they work 11 to 30 days, and $210 a day if they work more than 31 days.
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.