A recent decision from the Mark Twain Elementary School District (MTUESD) school board has further stoked the mask debate on school campuses and has prompted some parents to remove their children from the district.
After months of discussion, the school board voted Sept. 9 on whether the district would continue to follow its current mask mandate policy. After listening to the concerns raised by parents and former students, the board voted 4-1 to keep the current mandate in place.
Board members assured attendees that they were listening to their concerns but also had to consider that if they do not comply with the mandate, it could lead to legal and financial risk to the district and its staff.
“This board has the undaunting task of trying to keep 700 children happy. Not a handful—700, plus all their parents, plus keep our 39 staff members happy and safe,” board member Jennifer Eltringham said before casting the vote.
A letter sent out by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to school leaders on Aug. 23 states, “the failure of a school district to enforce the mask requirement breaches not only a legal duty, but also the first and foremost duty of every school leader—to protect students.”
“We have listened to everything you talked about tonight, and it does mean everything to hear both sides of the story. This is the worst situation we’ve been in. We feel like we're letting you down,” board member Diane Bateman said.
In response to the vote, 30 parents are planning to remove their children from the district on Tuesday, Sept. 14, according to Jesse Lopez, who ran unsuccessfully for the MTUESD school board in 2020.
Lopez wrote in an email to the Enterprise that some of the parents in the district had a meeting last week where it was ultimately decided that “damage (by the district) has already been done” and that “we won’t ever send our kids to a place we cannot trust.”
Lopez further expressed his distaste with the ruling: “As a parent of three, a local business owner, a stakeholder, but above all someone that has always worked very closely with the teachers and staff at MTUESD, I am saddened and appalled with last night's vote. While the board said they welcomed our feedback, it was abundantly clear that they had already made up their minds prior to this meeting. We as parents were accused of focusing on ‘what if's?’ while the board based their entire vote on a ‘what if?', putting threats of possible litigation above the interest of our students. Yesterday was a very sad day for MTUESD, and the board should be ashamed of themselves for the action they took.”
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced that masks are to be worn indoors in all schools for youth and adults. This was later simplified to allow local governing boards and districts to decide how to implement this mandate.
In August, the governing board and district administration first met to discuss how they would carry out the mandate at MTUESD.
According to a letter that was sent to parents on Sept. 3 from MTUESD Superintendent Paula Wyant, students who decide not wear a mask while indoors at school would be removed or taken out of the classroom following a phone call to parents to inform them to pick up their child.
The letter also states that “students are not required to wear a mask outside or during physical education at a distance, or while eating lunch. Teachers are to allow students multiple mask breaks throughout their day in a designated area of the classroom.”
In response, some parents expressed their dissent.
“I disagree (with the mandate),” said Janaiah Mcnurlin, a parent of three students in the district. “My children have asthma and don’t fare well with masks on all day long. They feel that they’re not allowed to express themselves because nobody can see their faces.”
Jennifer Blodgett, who has had six children in the district, was outraged by the mandate not allowing students a choice.
“It is our given freedom and rights that are being violated, our children have to go to school and be singled out because they choose not to put a muzzle (mask) on their face,” Blodgett said.
At an August board meeting, according to Wyant, some parents spoke “(in) favor of the mandate, or at least the concern to have their children in a class and some not.”
“We do have 90% (Mark Twain Elementary) and about 82% at Copper (Copperopolis Elementary) that are following the mandate, so whether they are in agreement or not—or have some reservations—their children are still coming to school. They are following the mandate,” Wyant said.
Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD), the county’s largest district, has created a similar mandate for their district which states how they will handle students refusing to wear masks.
“All students will be treated with respect and sensitivity throughout this process, and this is not seen as a disciplinary issue, but one of choices and consequences in this health/safety and compliance issue,” states the CUSD mask mandate.
Mark Campbell, CUSD Superintendent, said there has been some pushback from parents about their mandate policy but “no outright refusals we have not been able to work through. (It’s) an ongoing issue to support and enforce with consistency.”