Drummond and French early Feb. 22. The sun peeked over the snowy tips of the eastern mountains, perfectly positioned to blind those taking in the early-morning view. Thermometers citywide registered a chilly 45 degrees, cold enough to keep all but the die-hard inside their homes for as long as possible.
And yet, that wintry morning found a group of more than 40 concerned citizens bracing signs and posters against the blustery weather as they lined the edge of Leroy Jackson Park, advocating for the removal of the school mask mandate as parents dropped off their students at the middle and high schools.
A statewide decision to lift the mask mandate in most locations on Feb. 15 was what inspired this remarkable display — or, more accurately, what wasn’t decided. As this year’s Valentine’s Day approached, many students and parents harbored high hopes for the lifting of the school mask mandate in California, mostly due to similar course changes being announced in states such as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Oregon. And, indeed, many of the regulations regarding masks in indoor areas, specifically for those who have been vaccinated, were rescinded for California citizens on that date. However, the hopes of many families were dashed when California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state would delay until Feb. 28 any change in the state’s stance on school masking. While many believed that the state would be changing the way Covid precautions looked on that date, others worried that the school mask mandate wouldn’t be rescinded — thus, the protesters at the intersection.
“After navigating through pandemic uncertainty for two years, many have lost patience,” reflected Burroughs English Teacher Rosemary Gilbert on the divisive issue. “The imminent ending of the mask mandate has encouraged many to double their efforts of protesting this policy.” As she noted, most Burroughs students and teachers have grown weary of wearing masks for 55-minute increments.
Such frustration fueled the anti-mask crowd throughout the rest of the week and into the next, filling the cafeteria, library, and other rooms with unmasked students choosing to access their lessons online.
In response to the protest and concerns of those involved, Sierra Sands Unified School District Supt. Dr. Dave Ostash released a message to area families and teachers, noting the heightened level of concern about masks in schools but reaffirming that Sierra Sands Unified School District was currently enforcing the minimum Covid precautions, saying “to do anything less would violate both the most fundamental duty of all teachers (protecting students) as well as Californian law.” On Feb. 23, Ostash released yet another communication, this time commenting on the difficult position that he and his staff were in and the difficulties that they faced, as well as attaching a PDF copy of a letter he had sent Newsom advocating for the removal of the mask mandate.
In that letter, Ostash wrote, “I believe it is time to develop a safe and responsible path to eliminating the mask requirement for K-12 students and staff, regardless of vaccination status.” He concluded, “I respectfully request parental choice be reinstated by implementing an accelerated path to eliminating the mask requirement for K-12 students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, beginning on February 28, 2022.”
Newsom’s Feb. 28 announcement was a source of great anticipation, as students, administrators, staff and teachers awaited the news.
“I hope that the state decides to lower the mandate,” commented one student who preferred to stay anonymous. “The people who don’t want to wear masks aren’t really doing so anyways. It would save teachers a headache.”
Although critics of the mask mandate have often cited teachers’ unions as the force between continued masking, local Desert Area Teachers Association President Eileen Poole offered a less entrenched stance.
“DATA looks forward to the time, which we hope is soon, when public safety and legal guidance allow us to ease back on COVID restrictions,” said Poole.
Another Sierra Sands teacher, opting for anonymity, suggested that the time is right to move away from masking.
“To me, the guidance looks clear: In counties where the metrics are moving in the right direction and the healthcare system is not overwhelmed, masks should not be a requirement. Our county appears to fit this description.”
Finally, on Feb. 28, the Governor’s statement arrived — to mixed response.
“California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we’ve learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic,” said Newsom. “After March 11, in schools and child care facilities, masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended.”
For some teachers, the protest and ongoing uncertainty have been stressful, as they have worried about students’ missing class this close to the end of the quarter. They also worry about what happens next — how do we transition in a way that accommodates the needs and concerns of all?
Gilbert — who said that she is grateful for the masking policy that made in-person learning possible this year — is hopeful that the Burroughs community finds a way to come together to rebuild a healthy learning environment, one more aligned to our pre-pandemic status.
“Our community would probably look different if we came together to support all students during this transition — those excited to move on from the mask and those with concerns of being in close proximity to their unmasked peers,” said Gilbert. “Building community that acknowledges differing positions is a counterintuitive response to a culture dominated by rigidity and constant criticism. Embracing a positive response to mandates ending while also recognizing the process of transition looking different for everyone would allow our Burroughs’ community to cultivate common ground that encourages impactful relationships as well as continued academic growth we all can be proud of.”