L.A. County aligns with California to end school mask mandate

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Los Angeles County health officials on Monday said they will align with the state’s move to end indoor school masking requirements after March 11, giving officials in the county’s 80 schools districts — including L.A. Unified — the ability to make their own decision about whether to continue with local mandates.

The decision sets up a likely conflict in L.A. Unified between those who favor indoor masking rules and those who don’t. The teachers union on Monday said it would be premature to end the mandate.

As recently as last week, county officials had not committed to a quick end to the school mandate, citing the continued prevalence of coronavirus infection in the community, despite rapidly declining infection and hospitalization rates.

But on Monday after word came from Gov. Gavin Newsom in a statement, the county agreed it was time to let school leaders make the decision. The county also agreed with the state’s position of “strongly recommending” continued masking at K-12 and child-care sites.

The county health department said it “will align school masking measures with the state,” according to a statement. “School districts may continue to require masking at schools and during school activities and are encouraged to consult with teachers, staff, parents and students as they consider the appropriate safety protections for their school community, recognizing that many individuals may want to continue additional protections.”

United Teachers Los Angeles followed with words of its own.

“LAUSD schools have been the safest and most well equipped in the country because educators and families united to demand critical health and safety protocols,” union President Cecily Myart-Cruz said. “These protocols, like indoor masking, have protected tens of thousands of educators and more than half a million students, along with their families. It is premature to discuss removing these health and safety measures while there are still many unvaccinated youth in our early education programs and schools.”

Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said he would support any school system, including L.A. Unified, that chooses to continue the mandate.

“I fully expect that in certain areas, places that have experienced not just high transmission today but are still reeling from its impact … 80,000-plus Californians have lost their life to COVID,” Ghaly said. “Those individuals leave dozens of loved ones and family members each who are mourning the loss, who are still figuring out what this means for them. And if you’re in a community where that is a dominant factor and a dominant feature, we think that it could be totally reasonable to continue requiring masks for a period of time.”

Shortly after the state announcement, 32 Los Angeles County school districts called on the health department to adopt the relaxed policy — an indication that many school districts are prepared to drop masking.

The letter was signed by 40% of the county’s school systems, including Alhambra Unified, Beverly Hills Unified, Burbank Unified, El Rancho Unified, Glendale Unified, Las Virgenes Unified, Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified, Pasadena Unified and William S. Hart Union High School District.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest district, with a third of the county’s students, was not a signatory.

In L.A. Unified, the teachers union says an earlier agreement will keep masking in place, pending a return to bargaining over the matter.

There have been conflicting interpretations within L.A. Unified about whether bargaining with United Teachers Los Angeles would be required to drop the indoor mask rule. But a senior official told the Times on Monday that negotiations probably would have to take place.

New L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho did not address the issue directly in a tweet Monday but said the district would follow a “science-driven approach” and work collaboratively with all groups. If Carvalho accepts the union’s position, he would face intense disapproval from parents who are against the requirement and who have circulated petitions, mounted social media campaigns and staged anti-mask rallies.

“While I am happy the option will finally exist in California to be maskless in schools, I have low expectations of LAUSD allowing masks to become optional,” said Pam Schmidt, a Westchester resident who is raising two teenage grandchildren. “Masking kids is not a benign proposition and if it isn’t needed, why are we allowing a union to require it?”

Parents and interest groups in California also have filed lawsuits against the mandates. To date, the suits have not been successful.

Polling from early February indicated that parents across California are deeply divided on masking, but that a clear majority were supportive of mask mandates, including parents in the city of Los Angeles.

When it comes ending school mask mandates, only California and Hawaii had not yet done so before Monday’s announcement, according to Burbio, a media company that is tracking the data. Relaxed mandates had not yet taken effect in five other states. And, for the first time, the number of the nation’s largest 500 districts that are mask-optional exceeds the number that require masks.

Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley infectious diseases expert, said California should have continued its mask mandate in K-12 schools for a longer period of time until case rates fell further. In the past, when California has been more cautious than other states, it has resulted in less illness and death, he said.

Swartzberg said the state’s decision was influenced by political pressure.

In a related issue, L.A. Unified also faces a decision on when to pull back from its costly coronavirus testing program, which requires all staff and students to test every week. The school system has estimated the cost this year of continuing the testing through the end of the current academic year to surpass $500 million.

Carvalho would like to have money available for an ambitious and costly agenda that he laid out last week in a “100-Day Plan.” The plan includes targeted class-size reduction, a strategy generally supported by unions, parents and interest groups.

If Carvalho seeks to pull back from indoor masking, district employee unions — and not just the teachers union — could push harder to retain the weekly testing as both a safety and confidence-building measure.

Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents most non-teaching campus workers, has called for a voice in safety matters.

“The safety and security of the entire school community must be a priority, and SEIU Local 99 members are ready to negotiate with LAUSD to ensure the voices of essential workers are part of the process of changing masking protocols,” union Executive Director Max Arias said.

Testing becomes especially important without a masking mandate, said Nery Paiz, head of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents school administrators and other managers.

“Ongoing testing by LAUSD should also be a factor in following or not the mandate,” Paiz said.

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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