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New rules: Local students will be back on campus full time but with a statewide mask mandate in the face of the COVID-19 Delta variant 

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Patsy Mitchell, a third grade teacher at Calvin Oakley Elementary School in Santa Maria, got a pretty good test run at teaching during the pandemic when her school partially reopened for in-person instruction in the spring and summer.

Even with a less-than-full classroom, the experience wasn't easy. Indoor masking was mandatory, and that adjustment proved challenging.

"Some students had a hard time breathing," Mitchell remembered of those spring and summer classes. "A lot of it was anxiety ridden. Those little people—they don't even know it's anxiety."

click to enlarge MASK UP All students, teachers, and school staff will be required to wear masks indoors to start the 2021 school year, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • MASK UP All students, teachers, and school staff will be required to wear masks indoors to start the 2021 school year, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Whenever her students were having a hard time breathing in their masks, Mitchell would gently invite them to step outside, take it off, and catch their breath. Mitchell herself needed that respite at times.

"When they were ready, they were able to come back in," she said. "Nobody made fun of anybody."

Despite the rough start, Mitchell said her students showed resilience and adaptability. Before too long, they had mostly adjusted to the new circumstances, she said.

"At the end of the three weeks, children were giggling through their masks and making the best of it," she said.

Looking ahead to the full reopening of schools this month, K-12 teachers like Mitchell—as well as students, parents, and staff—are gearing up for an even more daunting challenge amid the ongoing pandemic.

As communities try to achieve some normalcy by bringing back full-time, in-person school for the first time since March 2020, cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant are surging. And children under age 12 are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Meanwhile, Central Coast vaccination rates lag among adults and teenagers. In a July 29 update on COVID-19, San Luis Obispo County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said that 42 percent of residents over age 12 are not yet fully vaccinated (about 10 percentage points higher than the statewide rate). In Santa Barbara County, about 46 percent of the county's population, of any age, is not fully vaccinated.

Despite those circumstances, health and education officials say that K-12 schools can still safely open this fall—but with precautions. One of those precautions is that teachers, students, and staff must continue to wear masks while indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.

That is a health mandate being passed down to all school districts from the state of California.

"It's going to be a different kind of difficult," said Eric Prater, superintendent of San Luis Coastal Unified School District, of the reopening process. "But anything's going to be better than what I saw last year. We need to reopen our schools."

The mask mandate is generating mixed reactions from schools and parents. At San Luis Coastal, which serves SLO, Avila Beach, and Morro Bay, Prater said district leaders fully agree with the state's rules and plan to take them extremely seriously.

"This is not something we're choosing to mess around with," Prater said.

At San Luis Coastal, any student who shows up to school without a mask will be provided one by the school. If the student refuses to wear it, he or she will be asked to go home, and the district will follow up privately with that family. All families have the option of enrolling their children in independent study instead of in-person school.

Prater added that a district nurse is going to review all mask exemption requests based on medical conditions and will follow a "strict protocol" in determining what constitutes a legitimate excuse to grant an exemption.

"There are some parents that are upset about this. And I just don't agree with them," Prater said. "As superintendent, my job is to keep students safe and staff safe, and my priority is to keep our schools open."

The mask mandate is getting a more lukewarm reception at some other local districts, like Atascadero Unified School District. At a July 22 school board meeting, Atascadero Unified Superintendent Tom Butler fielded several questions and complaints from board members and parents about the requirement.

Parents voiced concerns ranging from the safety and sanitation of their kids wearing masks, to the lower fatality rate of COVID-19 in children, to their constitutional right to not wear a mask. Parent Christa Abma pointed out that children and adults have been allowed to go places indoors without masks for most of the summer.

"They're living their lives and they're healthy," Abma said. "Let our bodies work how God designed them to work. We're strong. We'll overcome this."

In response, Butler said that if the district decided to buck the state mask mandate, it risked losing state funding "to the tune of millions of dollars." The district would also face legal liability, he said.

"The level where districts have local control is in enforcing it," Butler said. "We have some local control in how we engage with families and students who obviously don't want masks."

Butler said those situations would be dealt with politely and respectfully, with medical exemptions considered and independent study programs offered.

"This isn't going to be something where we're going to be a district that's suspending students or taking some type of punitive discipline action," he said.

Local public health officials stand behind the state mask order, calling it "key to safely reopening schools." Tara Kennon, a public information officer with SLO County Public Health, said masking is a proven strategy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, especially when social distancing is not possible, such as in a full classroom, and when many unvaccinated individuals are gathered.

"A robust body of scientific evidence supports masking as a safe and effective strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including among children over the age of 2," Kennon said via email. "Virtually all grade school children are unable to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and universal masking provides a level playing field that protects all students, teachers, and school staff."

While COVID-19 is most deadly among older people, local pediatrician Rene Bravo said children and teenagers don't go unaffected by the virus. As the Delta variant spreads throughout the unvaccinated population, the average age of hospitalized patients has dropped from 63 to 51.

"Please get your teens vaccinated," Bravo said during SLO County's July 29 press briefing. "They do spread it. There are complications that occur in teenagers. I've seen that. You don't know which child, who's going to be that person. I don't want to take that chance." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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