Solana Beach School District lifts outdoor mask requirement

Solana Ranch students "picnicking" at lunch time.

The Solana Beach School District will roll back its mandate on outdoor masks for students, starting on Nov. 1.

In a 4-1 vote on Oct. 14, the board followed staff’s recommendation that masks will be optional but strongly recommended when students are outside. Schools will only require masks when students are together in outdoor assemblies or instructional activities, excluding PE.

Superintendent Jodie Brentlinger said the district’s pandemic protocols are focused on keeping kids in school for in-person instruction as much as possible and keeping staff and students healthy and safe.

In August, the district joined San Diego Unified School District as being the only two local districts taking a step beyond the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) guidelines to require outdoor masks in light of the Delta variant, being able to limit quarantine time for students and reduce staff time spent on contact tracing.

The board made it clear that the decision was not permanent and that they would revisit the mandate in October.

“We said we would follow the CDPH contact tracing guidelines and the guidelines have changed,” said board member Julie Union in support of the staff’s recommendation. “I really believe in choice in all areas that impact children’s health.”

Brentlinger said when asking students about the safety measures they liked and what would make school better, about 50% of students said they didn’t want to wear masks outside while the other half preferred to keep wearing them to keep them safe.

In speaking to parents, they were split 50/50 as well and teacher views varied from site to site, one school was about 50/50 while another school polled was 75% in favor of continued masking.

“We do have common ground,” Brentlinger said. “We all want our students in school and receiving in-person instruction wherever possible.”

During public comment, parents spoke both opposed to removing the mandate and in support, advocating for parent choice.

Amanda Goodman, co-president of the Solana Beach Teachers Association, offered some teacher concerns about lifting the requirement for outdoor masks noting that it is difficult for students to maintain distance when playing outside, worries about the upcoming cold and flu season and the fact that teachers no longer have state-provided COVID leave if they are exposed to a case.

“Consistency is important to students and these changes cause further disruptions to established norms,” Goodman said. “We want to thank the families who continue to follow our safety protocols carefully. We all play a critical role in keeping our classes open and students healthy and we know it’s not easy to have to stay home or pick up a sick child unexpectedly. We see you and we appreciate your efforts.”

By setting the timeline of Nov. 1, Brentlinger said they hope to allow time for schools to implement the new routines of taking off masks when heading outdoors and getting them back on when coming back to classrooms.

In making his decision, board member Dana King said he had greater confidence due to the reduction in caseloads.

The district has seen a steady decline in cases as they finish out the ninth week of school. Solana Beach has had 38 COVID-19 cases since the school year began in August, all the result of off-site transmission, Brentlinger said. Twelve classes have been impacted by quarantines and six of the 12 were all within the first week of school.

The district has added additional mitigation strategies such as increased ventilation and using seating charts and distancing during lunchtime. At Solana Ranch, the students sit in hula hoops at lunch, which they call “picnicking” and at Skyline, students sit on padded mats with numbered dots to ensure spacing.

The board’s vote on outdoor masks was not unanimous, with Vice President Debra Schade opposed. Schade said she had concerns about whether they were removing health and safety mitigations at the right time. Nov. 1 was a little too fast for her and she would like to wait until vaccinations are available for children ages 5-11, which could happen in early November.

The CDPH has committed to revisiting indoor universal masking no later than Nov. 1,