RSF School board asks for local control, choice for student masking

RSF School Board President Jee Manghani reads the board's letter to the state requesting local control on student masking.
(Karen Billing)

With the state’s lifting of the universal masking mandate on Feb. 15, the Rancho Santa Fe School District board is letting the governor know they are ready for students’ masks to come off too.

At a rare Saturday special board meeting on Feb. 12, the board approved sending a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, the California Department of Public Health, and the Health and Human Services Agency asking for the return of local control and for the board to have discretion in determining what is in the best interest of its students.

The action came after a letter to the board signed by 151 Rowe parents asking for the school to offer a masking choice or an opt out for students. A group of parents showed up to the Feb. 11 board meeting to address the board during public comment and while it was not agendized then, RSF School Board President Jee Manghani called a special meeting for the next day to approve sending off the letter to the state.

“It’s been a long two years,” Manghani said. “We were one of the first schools to open in San Diego and in order to do so we had to comply with the guidelines.”

The school has remained fully open and in-person and further, per the letter, Rowe staff has a vaccination rate of 94% and the communities within the district have a vaccination rate in the range of 90%.

“I’m frustrated as we see most of the country having local district control so that they can evaluate how the pandemic is affecting their district and take appropriate action, but we are not able to in California,” Manghani said. “COVID-19 is now endemic which means it’s pervasive and permanent, it is here to stay and it’s something we have to live with as a society. As a result, I’m ready to have the kids live as normal of a life as possible.”

At the start of the 2021-22 school year, parents and representatives from Let Them Breathe also advocated for mask choice. At the time, the district maintained they were following the state’s mask guidance which was aligned with the American Academy of Pediatrics, considering masks to be the most effective and simplest safety measure to keep schools open and in-person without physical distancing, preventing outbreaks and shortening quarantine times.

“It’s time to stand up and tell the state ‘No’,” said parent Kerry Vinci at the Feb. 11 meeting. “It’s time to push back and wait and see what happens. This is not fair to our kids. We’re robbing our kids of their childhood.”

Parents questioned district leadership and the district prioritizing the state’s policy over their children. Some students have shown up to school refusing to wear masks in protest and were forced to miss school as a result.

Parent Lauren Frost was emotional in speaking about what a challenge this school year has been on the youngest of her three children at Rowe. Due to parents not being allowed on campus, she wasn’t able to walk her kindergartner into school on the first day and she said he cried every day at drop-off for four months: “He hates coming to school.” This week, her son began speech therapy assessment and she worries that masks have delayed his speech and language development.

“He is struggling learning. His teacher has told me she sees him having anxiety in class,” Frost said tearfully. “These masks are causing my five-year-old to have anxiety…Masking is directly related to our son’s issues. I stand here today asking you to speak for my voice and give me the right to choose what is best for my child.”

One parent at the meeting said she respected her fellow parents’ desire to get kids out of masks but cautioned the board against doing anything prematurely and to be cognizant of future variants.

Board members were sympathetic to the parents’ concerns and Tree acknowledged that everyone has lost time in the pandemic— his own daughter graduated from college virtually in his driveway. He said he believes that the district did its best in order to keep schools open and keep learning in-person, balancing the science, data, threats and fears on all sides.

“I do think we’re at an inflection point,” he said. “I don’t think we should have mask mandates in California. I think we have gotten enough time and experience under our belts to be able to offer a chance for each parent to choose... I don’t think it’s right to impose it on our parents at this time. I had a different opinion at the beginning because none of us knew what we were facing.”

Tree said he was not aware of anyone in the school district being lost to COVID-19. According to the latest numbers, seven people within the Rancho Santa Fe zip codes are among the 4,686 San Diegans who have died of COVID-19.

The board’s letter requested a response from the governor or CDPH by Feb. 18. Whatever the response, Manghani said they would schedule another meeting to determine their next steps, without putting the district at a legal or financial risk.

A representative from the Rancho Santa Fe Faculty Association said they did not have a formal statement about the board’s action but they stated they have been satisfied with the many safety measures put in place thus far that have helped them to teach in person for the last two school years.

Newsom had been expected to announce new guidance on school masks this week and at a Feb. 14 online press conference Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, said the state will reassess conditions as of Feb. 28.

Ghaly suggested the state would lift the school mask mandate in two weeks but would still strongly recommend masks in school for students and staff.

“We anticipate making the change at that point, and that change is going to be one that I think will be met with a lot of excitement in some and a lot of fear in other circles,” Ghaly said.

Ghaly also suggested that when the state’s school mask mandate is lifted, school districts will be allowed to continue requiring masks if they wish.

“Local decisions are not just allowed; they’re well-supported,” Ghaly said.

Clerk Kali Kim, the only board member who opposed advocating against the masking directive, was not in attendance at the meeting. The day before, Kim stressed that she does think local control should be back in the hands of local districts and she does support parent choice when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines for their children.

In December, the board passed a resolution in opposition to California’s vaccine mandate, which states that the vaccine will be required for in-person school attendance for all K-12 students just like for measles, mumps, rubella and more. The requirement will take effect at the start of the term following full FDA approval.

The RSF School District’s resolution urged the governor to reconsider or rescind the mandate as a condition of in-person learning: “The vaccine mandate is ill-advised and in opposition to the educational and social and emotional goals of the district for its students.”

— Kristen Taketa of the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.