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By Collin Breaux
The day many Capistrano Unified School District parents and students have been waiting for is finally coming.
Nearly two years after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, California officials announced that indoor mask requirements for students on campus would be lifted March 12.
“After March 11, in schools and child care facilities, masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press release his office issued Monday, Feb. 28, announcing the coming change.
The announcement mentioned California leaders adjust policies “based on the latest data and science.” COVID-19 case rates have recently trended downwards, and life has roughly returned to what it was pre-pandemic.
Student mask requirements have ignited significant backlash in CUSD, where parents and students have shown up to denounce the mandate during Board of Trustees meetings and staged walk-outs from school campuses in opposition.
Students have also recently attempted to enter classrooms without masks as a demonstration against the requirement, including at Dana Hills High School.
CUSD officials repeatedly said the district must follow state guidelines, and have urged California officials to reverse mask requirements for students. Masks are not required outdoors on campuses, such as when students are at lunch or recess.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, also addressed the soon-to-be policy change during a live-streamed teleconference shortly after Newsom’s announcement.
“Safe in-person instruction is essential. This is particularly for vulnerable populations who depend on schools not just for school instruction but for critical services, critical activities,” Ghaly said. “Some individuals depend on it for meals and basic support.”
CUSD campuses reopened in late 2020 after initially closing schools to in-person instruction, and were one of the first school districts in California to reopen.
“We must ensure that there is low risk of catching COVID in schools, for both students and staff,” Ghaly said. “We must remain prepared to adjust as the conditions of the virus adjust.”
Two separate resolutions on the agenda for CUSD’s Board of Trustees meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 2, address student mask regulations. One, introduced by Trustees Judy Bullockus and Gila Jones, directs the CUSD superintendent to exercise local responsibility in enforcing mask wearing in the classroom.
The resolution cites Newsom, who in July 2021 said enforcement of mask-wearing in schools and school programs has always been a local responsibility.
“Because suspending and excluding students from school when they refuse to wear masks in classrooms is in direct conflict with our mission to educate and prepare our students and our commitment to their success, it is proposed that the District exercise our permitted local responsibility, as explained by Governor Newsom, and modify the current policy of enforcement of mask-wearing in Capistrano Unified School District classrooms,” the resolution said.
The second resolution, introduced by Trustee Lisa Davis, recommends the district adopt a policy of “non-enforcement” with masks.
“As a district, we will continue to post all recommendations from the CDPH stating their suggestion of wearing of masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Davis’ resolution said. “A policy of non-enforcement allows staff, teachers and families a choice in the wearing of masks and allows education to move back to a more normal environment.”
Newsom, in his announcement, also said mask requirements will be lifted on March 1 for unvaccinated individuals, “but will strongly be recommended for all individuals in most indoor settings.” Monday’s announcement also permits local jurisdictions to keep mask requirements in place, if they so wish.
Masks will still be required on public transportation, emergency shelters, health care settings, prisons and jails, homeless shelters, and long-term care facilities as those are considered “high transmission” settings.
Oregon and Washington are also adopting masking policies similar to California.
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.