Rowe School parents request optional student masking

Parents spoke out against the mask mandate at the RSF School board meeting on Aug. 12.
(Karen Billing)

All California school districts are required to follow state guidelines on masks


Now heading into their third school year of students being affected by COVID-19, some R. Roger Rowe School parents are hoping for a little relief, asking the Rancho Santa Fe School District to consider making masks a choice for students in the classroom.

At the board’s Aug. 12 meeting, a group of parents contested that not only are masks uncomfortable for children, they also can cause social and emotional harm and negatively impact their ability to learn. Parents also argued that children are less at risk for COVID-19 and wearing a mask should be optional, as it is for vaccinated adults.

For the record:

9:43 p.m. Aug. 17, 2021An earlier version of this story stated that the San Diego County Office of Education had issued quarantine requirements but they do not have any authority over public health measures. Their quarantine “decision tree” is meant to be a tool for districts in determining quarantine protocols, prepared in collaboration with the County of San Diego, the San Diego Academy of Family Physicians and the American Association of Pediatrics.

“I respect those who choose to wear a mask, it is not my intent to have personal choice removed,” parent Stacy Harris said. “I would like the right to choose what is best for my child.”

Parent Tiffany Mittal said she has become so frustrated by the mask mandates that she might pull her children out of Rowe: “I will not have my kids going to school with masks.

“If my child or any child goes to school with their parents not wanting their children to wear masks and you force them to wear masks, that’s no better than child abuse. It’s child abuse,” Mittal said to the extended applause of those in the audience.

Representatives from Let Them Breathe were also in attendance at the meeting, bringing their own microphone, dais and camera to record public comments. The San Diego-based group has sued the state to end the mask mandate for schools.

Per the California Department of Public Health guidelines, all California students and staff are required to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Masks are optional when students are outside.

Whether the board supported the parents’ position or not did not matter. Superintendent Donna Tripi as well as the district’s attorney Kendall Swanson confirmed that the district does not have the discretion to make its own decision on masks. The state’s guidance aligns with the recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Guidance is a requirement in this case, everyone needs to follow the guidance,” Tripi said. “It’s binding for California public schools.”

Per the district, masks are one of the most effective and simplest safety measures to prevent in-school transmission of COVID-19. It enables the school not to have physical distancing requirements, helps prevent outbreaks and shortens quarantine times.

Those students who do not want to wear a mask cannot attend school in person and can attend independent study provided by the school’s teachers.

Across the country, 38 states have eliminated mask mandates for school in the coming year. An additional eight states have banned local districts from instituting a mask mandate in their schools including Utah, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, Vermont and South Carolina.

California is among the 12 states (in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) that have a school mask mandate.

“We’re all disappointed that we can’t be totally back to normal yet but the world isn’t back to normal yet,” Tripi said, citing the new variants and the state experiencing the fastest increase in cases during the entire pandemic.

“We are in a better place than last year,” Tripi said, noting a year ago the district was scrambling to acquire a waiver from the state to return to in-person instruction. With the waiver granted, the school was among the first in the county to reopen. Along with neighboring Del Mar Union School District, they were among the only school districts in the state to offer full-time, in-person school all year.

Tripi said by following strict mitigation strategies, they were able to keep everyone safe all year. In the 2020-21 school year the district had a total of 10 student cases, five staff cases and six classes had to quarantine.

On Aug. 12, the board approved the district’s “Safe Return to School” plan for 2021-22 which had some loosening of the restrictions. The big four mitigation strategies this year are vaccinations, facial coverings, screening/testing and sanitation and ventilation— physical distancing is no longer in the top four and Tripi said classrooms will feel more normal without spacing requirements.

“Our main goal is to have as many kids in the classroom as many days as possible,” President Kali Kim said.

Elementary school students will remain in cohorts for lunch and recess for the first month of the school year and then the district plans to re-evaluate based on local cases rates. Middle school students will not have to cohort, the reasoning being that a higher percentage of students 12 and older have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

“As guidance changes, we will change with the guidance,” Tripi said.

As part of the safety plan, Tripi had recommended masking for students when they arrived at school and during pick-up to assist with contact tracing and the complicated quarantine protocols. To guide their quarantine procedures, the district is using a “decision tree” tool prepared by the San Diego County Office of Education in collaboration with the County of San Diego, the San Diego Academy of Family Physicians and the American Association of Pediatrics.

Trustees pushed back against that part of the plan.

Kim said she did not support masking for pick-up and drop-off or during transitions, such as when they are walking to the restroom, because it is outdoors and they should have an opportunity for a mask break.

With universal masking in play in the classroom, Trustee John Tree said it was “overkill” to require masks outside.

“It does bother me that we’re reaching beyond the CDPH,” Tree said. “I just can’t agree with over-reaching, I think it should be optional for the parent and their child to decide what they do outside.”

Vice President Jee Manghani, too, was in favor of doing just what the CDPH requires and not anything more, teaching kids that they can choose to wear a mask or not when they are outside.