WATSONVILLE—Beginning Monday, Pajaro Valley Unified School District will drop its requirement that students wear a mask while indoors.
The PVUSD Board of Trustees approved a resolution Wednesday to “strongly recommend” that everyone still mask up inside while school is in session. The resolution further states that harassing anyone for their choice to wear a mask—or not—will be handled as any other instance of bullying.
The move comes after declining hospitalization rates for Covid-19 prompted state and county officials to relax mitigation rules.
“We are continuing to follow (California Department of Public Health) requirements, so we, too, will wind up making it voluntary,” Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez added that there will be “on-ramps” to bringing back the masking requirements, such as increasing cases, and that the decision would be out of the district’s hands.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that school districts statewide must follow CDPH guidelines on Covid-19 protocols.
While most resolutions—which typically carry no official clout—pass without comment, the issue drew several speakers. Many lambasted the board and district, criticizing them for mitigation strategies that have taken place since the pandemic began two years ago, which include mask requirements and distance learning.
Many members of the audience shouted their displeasure and loudly criticized several speakers in favor of masking requirements, prompting board chair Kim De Serpa to threaten to recess the meeting.
Shanna Crigger, who called herself a “pissed off Rio Del Mar parent,” criticized decisions by the board to move students to distance learning, which she called a “total joke,” and to severely limit in-person instruction when they returned to class.
“Mandating masks for kids is delusional, and it’s dangerous,” she said, adding that there is no evidence that it limits the spread of Covid-19.
Blake Gallick, a PVUSD father, claimed that masks do not work, and in fact, have a deleterious effect.
“It’s affecting their mental health, it’s affecting their social health, it’s really bad what we’re doing,” he said.
School nurse Carolyn West, who said she has been on the job for 28 years, disagreed.
“This is my life,” she said. “This is what I do every day, all day. The science does support masks. I wear a mask all the time, I’ve never heard any kids complain about wearing a mask.”
Watsonville High School student Herman Gonzalez, ASB Co-President, stated his support for masking. He urged the board to move with caution and to make a quick decision to bring back mask requirements if cases rise.
“The entirety of the resolution that to be read tonight at some point recognizes that not only is masking a simple and effective way for our students and staff to protect themselves, but to also to ensure long-term protection as the science has shown,” he said.
Megan Bridgette questioned the district’s ability to legally require masks, asking, “where’s the law?’
“After it reaches a certain point, we all know what (your) intentions are,” she said. “It’s to put the masks back on the kids, and we’re here to say it’s not going to happen. By law you cannot tell these kids they have to do this.”
In fact, Newsom does have broad authority under the California Emergency Services Act to mandate such things, and in June 2020 issued an executive order requiring Covid-19 mitigation measures in many settings.
According to Santa Cruz County Office of Education spokesman Nick Ibarra, school districts are obligated to follow CDPH masking mandates, when issued. Failure to comply, he says, could result in legal challenges and loss of insurance coverage.
The resolution passed 6-0-1, with Trustee Jennifer Holm abstaining. She explained that her position on the Board of Directors of the California Nurses Association—and the PVUSD Board—makes voting, either way, a conflict of interest.
“As much as we would like for this pandemic to be over, it isn’t, not yet,” she said. “Our healthcare system continues to be impacted, and those who work in it are simply exhausted. To vote yes or no would be to abrogate my responsibilities to one organization or another, and I cannot ethically do that.”