Rancho Santa Fe School District board: Student masks are optional

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

Students at R. Roger Rowe School will now have a choice on whether or not they wear a mask in their classrooms following the Rancho Santa Fe School board’s action at a Feb. 21 special meeting.


Students at R. Roger Rowe School will now have a choice on whether or not they wear a mask in their classrooms following the Rancho Santa Fe School board’s action at a Feb. 21 special meeting.

With a 3-2 vote, the board made the call ahead of the state’s expected announcement later this week on masking in school.

“My youngest is 6, this is the only elementary experience he knows: Masked and scared,” said parent Stacy Harris who was among 160 Rowe parents requesting that masking be optional. “Today is so very important in so many ways. I couldn’t be any more thankful for the brave leaders who heard our voices and our cries.”

After the state lifted the universal mask mandate on Feb. 15, the board majority believed that schools should be able to follow suit—approving 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. The board requested a response from the state by Feb. 18 and after not hearing back they voted to take back local control on Monday evening, Feb. 21, allowing students to return to school immediately on Tuesday, Feb. 22, with or without a mask.

“The governor did not respond to our request. He declared last week that the virus is now endemic. His press conference on Feb. 9 where he said that masks can come off for everyone except school children because he is still negotiating with special interests in Sacramento led me to believe that he is retaining policies for our children based on politics, rather than science,” said RSF School Board President Jee Manghani. “The most vulnerable in our society can unmask while the least vulnerable are forced to mask.

“I believe in the protective effects of the vaccine and N95 masks, and thus our 90% plus vaccination rates gives me confidence that our communities are in a better position than most in California.”

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.

In the 3-2 vote, Trustees John Tree and Kali Kim were opposed. Tree, who said he is 100% for mask choice, was asking until March 1 so Superintendent Donna Tripi and her team could prepare a transition to a mask-choice environment on campus.

“I stated we have followed all the rules for nearly two years now and have been open this whole time, so let’s take one more week to have an orderly transition,” Tree said.

He said while he would have preferred giving the administration the week to prepare for the change in policy, he accepted that the majority of the board voted for an immediate implementation.

Kim, too, said she supports masks being optional but was more concerned about the implementation as masking is just one piece of the school’s COVID safety plan.

“I’m not for masking but I am for minimizing any kind of disruption at the school as a result of being out of compliance with state mandates,” Kim said. “I just wish the board had more of a plan in place and answers for staff and parents’ questions.”

Last 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.

At a Feb. 18 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.”

— San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Kristin Taketa contributed to this article.