Masks removed, fingers crossed at CUSD

by Mick Rhodes | [email protected]

Almost two years to the day since they abruptly closed after the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, schools in Claremont will reach a symbolic milestone on Monday when masks will no longer be required on their campuses. .

“I see this as a great opportunity to kind of be reborn on school grounds,” said Claremont Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Wilson. “And I can’t wait to go to campuses and see the full, smiling faces of our kids next week. It’s going to make my year.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Sept. 28 announcement that “in schools and daycares, masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended,” no doubt leaves many people feeling relieved. However, some will continue to mask themselves, either because they are immunocompromised, or because they live with someone who is, or out of an abundance of caution.

“I know this is good news for a lot of people, and a bit concerning for a lot of people as well, and we need to be aware of that,” said CUSD Assistant Superintendent, Social Services Kevin Ward. “But, personally, I think it will be good – for those who are ready – to be able to pull them inside and see their smile again.”

As COVID grew heavier and the news grew increasingly grim, most schools in California closed on Friday, March 13, 2020. Word then was that it would be a week or two, then children would be out of back to campus. It didn’t happen for 13 months.

Since March 2020, CUSD has redesigned much of its infrastructure to reflect the new normal. It has implemented a fully online education model for all of its approximately 6,800 students, with several options. When things started to look like schools could partially reopen last year, it worked to create hybrid programs, with staggered cohorts and schedules, COVID testing and quarantine protocols, and still has offered online distance learning for students reluctant to return to campus.

All the while, schools themselves have undergone changes to cleaning procedures, had new air filtration systems installed and classrooms and offices adjusted to comply with distancing requirements. state and county social security. These and many other changes to the pre-COVID way of doing things meant constant adjustments for teachers, students, administrators, and families. It hasn’t all been easy and the new normal hasn’t worked out for all students. But the district, it must be said, has done its best to balance the concerns of its staff, students, and families in the difficult context of state and county mandates that typically left it with little or no wiggle room. maneuver.

All that to say, it’s been a long and somewhat traumatic two years, and this new wrinkle in what feels like an endless loop of despair/hope/desperation/hope is pretty much the best news CUSD has received since the previous times.

“I think for us at the school sites and in the district office, it’s a relief because we’ve kind of been at the heart of this debate, where I think people are frustrated because they haven’t really no voice at federal, state level. or even I would say county level,” Wilson said. “And so those frustrations are carried over into our meetings and communications with our board members, and with superintendents, directors and down to the site level, where we’ve seen confrontations with parents and the directors.

“And it’s frustrating because there’s not much we can do other than share our community’s concerns with lawmakers and policymakers.”

The district’s two unions, the Claremont Faculty Association and the California School Employees Association, which have both spent weeks reaching agreements with the district over the multitude of changes to their working conditions, are again facing sands moving. This time, however, instead of adding new changes, things are subtracted, so it would seem that the negotiations are a little less strenuous. But the fact that the state and county gave school districts just a few days to prepare for the lifting of the mask mandate compels both associations to get the word out to its members and has left some questions unanswered.

With the rapid turnaround, there was little time to “check the pulse,” said CFA President Kara Evans. The group’s board leadership had several lengthy conversations as it negotiated with the district to help shape the language to make its members more comfortable. Still, the union supports the decision.

“I think it was the right move because like I said, LA County tends to be cautious and the cases are so low,” Evans told the COURIER. “I’m a bit worried about an increase after Spring Break, and I was hoping we’d delay a bit, but I also recognize that they’re doing other things to mitigate that increase, like sending tests to residence.”

Ginny Stewart, the new CSEA president, echoed Evans’ comments, saying she too had mixed feelings.

“Probably a bit of both,” Stewart said. “I think we’re going to be okay with that, but I think we’re probably going to handle things differently in the future, like getting together and stuff and going out and stuff. I’m for it, and we’ll see how it goes.

The district board also weighed in, lending its support to the move.

“We are relieved that it is less of a burden for the families who did not want to wear the masks, and we are grateful to the families who did not want to wear the masks and who still supported the schools that followed the LA County guidelines,” council chairman Steven Llanusa said.

With masks now optional, the battle for those who did not support masking at all – a fairly vocal minority over the past two years – would seem to be over. Interestingly, it may now be those who choose to continue wearing masks indoors or outdoors who may feel stigmatized. The district has thought about that, Wilson said.

“Not only do we say they can [continue to wear masks], we encourage everyone – students, staff, teachers – who make this choice, we want to make sure they know we have their full backing,” the superintendent said. “Let me be frank: we will not tolerate any form of intimidation by those who might consider this a political act.

“We definitely want to encourage appropriate choices by individuals here, including those who would choose to continue in mask.”

Of course, the imminent possibility of another COVID surge could upset all that good feeling. It’s certainly not a guarantee that the numbers will inflate, but as we’ve seen over the past couple of years, the virus is doing nothing but ebbs and flows.

Fortunately, consumers and doctors have more tools than ever in their toolboxes: Pills that would help prevent severe cases of COVID have been urgently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including Paxlovid and Molnupiravir; more Americans are vaccinated and vaccinated now than before previous surges; home COVID antigen test kits are widely available; and the hospitals at the moment are not flooded.

But if all that prophylaxis isn’t enough and cases rise again to dangerous levels, there’s no doubt that state and county health agencies will mandate masks for public schools. Then what ?

“I always come back to – and maybe this is a bit Pollyannaish – but I believe that when people’s emotions are high, it’s not because they’re bad people; I think it’s because they have very, very strong beliefs about things,” Wilson said. “I guess what I would continue to ask people is to understand the position that a public school district is in, and how we have to respond, and how we are subject to the same kinds of rules that other businesses depend on. .”

Ward, who the COURIER has relied on for weekly COVID updates for two years now, was candid:

“Yeah, that’s the $10,000 question,” he said. “Certainly I think if we go into the upper tiers and we have to put the inner masking back in, I think you’re going to have a lot of upset people.”

So for now – and hopefully for months to come – many children, teachers, staff and administrators are enjoying a major boost from the surprisingly liberating act of letting go of their masks. .

“I would say my initial response would be relief,” Wilson said. “It’s something I think we all want.”