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Schools say they’re caught ‘between a rock and a hard place’ as anti-mask protests grow

Some San Diego County school district leaders are pleading for help as they bear the brunt of families’ discontent over the state’s indoor school mask mandate, which at this point has no expiration date.

Scores of San Diego County students, many who are not yet teenagers, are protesting the mandate by refusing to wear masks in class. The protests have garnered more attention in the past few days, ever since state officials announced at a press conference last Monday that they are not lifting the state’s indoor school mask mandate yet.

State leaders say they will reassess state COVID data on Feb. 28 but have suggested they won’t lift the school mask mandate until sometime after that date.

Families who don’t agree with masks have run out of patience with the school mandate as they watched California officials lift its mask mandate for virtually all other sectors of public life last week and as a growing number of states have lifted their school mask mandates.

Several of the student protests are happening in North County, where the parent-led, anti-mask Let Them Breathe movement began and where superintendents have complained about the state throwing down blanket COVID mandates on schools.

“I’m just really sick of all the masks,” Addy Spangler, 12, who refused to wear a mask at her school, Aviara Oaks Middle School in Carlsbad Unified, said on Sunday. “If (Gov. Gavin) Newsom doesn’t have to wear a mask, I don’t see why we have to.”

To follow the state’s mask mandate, schools are excluding students who refuse to wear masks from classrooms and having them wait in an outdoor location on campus until their parents pick them up. The practice has prompted complaints from parents who say their children are being denied instruction after exercising their right to free speech.

“I don’t want my child segregated,” said parent Wendy Griffin, on Sunday. Her 9-year-old daughter Emily refused to wear a mask at Kelly Elementary in Carlsbad Unified. “I don’t think that that’s right. It’s bizarre to me that we’re living in a land of segregation.”

But according to some local school leaders, the families’ anger is misplaced, because schools are required to enforce the mask mandate on the state’s behalf, even though several school leaders are unhappy with how the state has been handling COVID school mandates.

Masked students line up for their first day of school last July at Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista.

Masked students line up for their first day of school last July at Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The superintendents of several local districts, including Poway Unified, Carlsbad Unified, San Marcos Unified and Alpine Union, said they are disappointed the state has not yet released a timeline for easing the school mask mandate. Districts in other parts of the county, notably San Diego Unified and South County school districts, have been much more likely to embrace COVID safety measures such as masking and vaccine mandates.

In a letter to state leaders on Friday, Poway Unified Superintendent Marian Kim-Phelps shared frustration that state officials have placed the burden of mask enforcement on educators. She said educators are exhausted after two years of surviving distance learning, keeping up with COVID safety measures, following the state’s frequently changing school COVID rules and enduring anger and harassment from parents about masks, school closures and other COVID measures.

“Our already-taxed teachers and administrators should not and cannot be the mask police. Students should not and cannot be excluded from their education,” Kim-Phelps wrote. “The angst and conflict over masks have become an extreme distraction at our schools.”

Superintendent Ben Churchill of Carlsbad Unified said in an email on Sunday that there’s a misconception that school districts have the ability to defy the state’s mask mandate, and school staff have been put in “a very difficult position” because they face significant risks if they don’t enforce it.

“Our teachers, principals and staff are between a rock and a hard place. They just want to teach … They don’t want to fight battles about statewide mandates,” Churchill said. “But … they’re the ones asked to enforce the rules and they are far more accessible than any of the statewide decision-makers.”

In August, state Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón warned school leaders that they have a legal duty to enforce the mask mandate and if they don’t, they will face “significant legal, financial and other risks.”

Schools and school leaders can face “significant financial liability” if a student or staff member contracts COVID while the mask mandate was not being enforced, and the liability would be “substantial” if a student or staff member dies from COVID, Aragón warned. Schools could face lawsuits from families or staff, as well as fines or other actions by county health officials, for not enforcing the mask mandate.

Individual staff members with education licenses, including teachers and administrators, may also be disciplined by the state’s credentialing commission for not enforcing the mask mandate, Aragón said.

Parents against masks said they’re not convinced school districts have their hands tied, because they’ve seen reports of school districts in other parts of the state that are not excluding non-mask-wearing students from class.

And the state has refrained from saying that schools have to exclude students from class to comply with the mask mandate — in fact, the state doesn’t say anything about how schools should enforce the mandate, which has also frustrated school leaders.

At a Friday news conference, Newsom stressed that while there are parents who oppose masks, there are also parents who want to keep masks.

“There are parents on both sides that have strong opinions,” Newsom said. “And I can assure you, as a parent, I understand that. And we have to accommodate for a state that has more schools and public school educators than any other state in the nation, and the nuances and complexities that that provides, those challenges all have to be incorporated.”

That includes parents like Jennifer Kutler, who represents a group called Parents 4 PUSD with about 500 members. At a school board meeting last week, Kutler said parents were “outraged” by Kim-Phelps’ letter and believe it may be inciting more anti-mask protests and sentiment among students, “which will only bring greater stress for teachers,” Kutler said.

Kutler said she believes the anti-mask sentiment is being blown out of proportion, and relatively few students are protesting masks.

“Why is the superintendent not representing the vast majority of mandate-following parents?” Kutler said in an email. “Instead she has become an ally for the anti-mask groups, making them feel justified in their disruptive rule breaking behavior at school.”

In an email, Kim-Phelps said her letter was not about supporting or opposing masks. As superintendent, she said she listens to and tries to balance many perspectives.

“My support and advocacy will always be about what is best for our students, staff and school community,” she said.

She added that higher vaccination rates, greater access to vaccines and lower infection rates have all improved COVID conditions.

“When mask mandates were lifted on Feb. 15, except for schools, along with public figures seen comfortably indoors without masks in various venues, this sent mixed messages to our students, staff and families,” she said. “The enforcement of the mask mandate has become extremely difficult on school officials, and our campuses should not become political battlegrounds when the data supports a return to normal.”