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School board votes to lift indoor mask mandate

MCHS students masked while in advocacy, Friday, March 11 (Photo: Katrina Gorauskas, The Puma Prensa)

by Katrina Gorauskas, staff writer

The Santa Rosa City School Board voted 4-2 to align with state guidance and end mandatory indoor masking in schools. Students, parents, and teachers alike all desperately waited for the outcome of the board meeting, held via Zoom on Wednesday night. The meeting covered multiple important issues, but the main question in hand was item E4: whether or not the SRCS Board would alter their mask policy in accordance with the “New Masking Guidelines from California Department of Public Health.”

The meeting began at 6:00 pm, but action item E4 did not come up until 9:45 p.m. Almost six hours into the meeting, Vice President Jill McCormick made a motion at 11:38 p.m. that the board “approve and accept the new masking guidelines from California Department of Health and that we do so starting Monday on March 14.” The board then voted 4-2 in favor of the new masking guidelines. McCormick and President Ed Sheffield, as well as trustees Laurie Fong and Ever Flores, voted to accept the new guidelines, while trustees Stephanie Manieri and Alegría De La Cruz voted to reject the new guidelines. Omar Medina was not present for the vote. Sheffield concluded the vote saying, “Clearly we have not gone into this issue recklessly, we listened to science. We listened to health experts, we listened to equity, we listened to families. This is the decision that we made as a board. Motion passes.” There will be an additional meeting on Friday at 12:00 p.m. to work on the necessary negotiations with the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, the local union representing teachers and counselors, regarding masks.

Leading up to the anticipated decision, the item opened with a presentation from SRCS Superintendent Anna Trunnell that included district-wide survey data. 59.1% of respondents from the parent survey opted to make masks at school optional, while 40.9% voted to keep masks mandatory for children in the district. Trunnell broke down the data by school and additionally showed staff survey data. 65.8% of staff were in favor of ending the indoor masking mandate, and 34.2% were not. Also, Trunnell shared data about the decreasing COVID cases and high vaccination rates for each age group. 

After the presentation, the board was able to ask the superintendent questions about the matter. Trustee Omar Medina asked what the term “strongly recommended” meant for “policing masks.” Superintendent Trunnell replied, “Currently as it stands if the board were to make a sweeping decision to remove masks transitioning to strongly recommended after March 11,there will not be any discipline [for not wearing a mask indoors],” adding that vaccination status does not matter. 

De La Cruz asked multiple questions about race and ethnicity data. Her main focus was making the masking guidelines a racial and equity issue because she was worried that vaccines are not accessible to all groups, but that belief did not appear to be backed up with any data. Stephanie Manieri replied, “It is not that [vaccines are] not accessible… just taking time for folks to make decisions for their kids.” De La Cruz pushed the board to keep masks mandated, but to allow more lenient medical exemptions for mental health. This proposal was directly responded to during the public comments, where parents expressed concern for students’ mental health being worsened by an exemption from wearing a mask under special circumstances. 

Once the board was done with their questions, the Zoom meeting was opened up to an hour of public comments on the matter with each person receiving two minutes to speak. Majority of the commenters supported mask choice with a few wanting to keep the current mask requirements in school. Many people, from younger children, teenagers, parents and teachers commented. In summary, community members talked about how adults were able to go about life without masks and the surrounding districts were lifting the requirements, but forcing children to still wear masks targeted the kids unfairly. On the other end of the spectrum, people expressed fear that removing the mask mandate will lead to students going back online for the end of the school year and apprehension that people will not pay attention to the wording “strongly recommended.” Additionally students and parents worry for those who are immunocompromised. The response to that concern was that people who still wish to wear a mask have the option to, but that each student should be able to decide the levels of protection that they should take for themselves. The main question brought up by commenters was why the SRCS board would consider differing from the state and even county health guidelines carefully researched and put into place. 

At the end of the important discussion the board came to a conclusion that aligned with the majority of opinions in the surveys and comments.

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