Board keeps mask mandate, to reconsider in late April

Students+at+Burlingame+will+be+required+to+wear+masks+at+least+through+April+21.

Jake Rothstein

Students at Burlingame will be required to wear masks at least through April 21.

Elise Spenner, Copy Editor

The San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously on the night of Thursday, March 10 to keep the indoor mask mandate in place for all campuses. In doing so, the trustees rejected Superintendent Kevin Skelly’s recommendation that the district follow the California Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) updated guidelines, which suggest a “strongly recommended” mask policy rather than a mandate. Citing current concerns about enforcement responsibilities and the protection of at-risk populations, the Board plans to reconsider loosening mask requirements at their April 21 meeting. 

“Fear isn’t healthy. Fear disrupts education. And I think no student or teacher or staff member should come to school afraid that they might be exposed to something or afraid that they might be bullied,” said Trustee Linda Lees Dwyer. “They will wear a mask in school, that’s how it is.”

Those who spoke before the Board largely advocated in favor of dropping the mask mandate, asking the Board to align themselves with the CDPH recommendations. 

“I think we are in a place as a community where we can do this, and where it’s time to do this. Individuals need to be free to take individual precautions, and assess their own individual risk precautions,” said Jen Jacobson, who spoke during public comment. “These kids have been wearing masks for two years.”

Other districts across San Mateo County, including Sequoia Union High School District, Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary School District and Hillsborough City School District, abiding by those guidelines, transitioned to strongly recommending masking after March 11. 

But once Board discussion began, four trustees clearly staked their position in favor of keeping the mask mandate in the SMUHSD.

“I don’t think it puts us as violating the science, violating the guidelines. It’s part of the guidelines,” said Board President Peter Hanley, who opened discussion with a statement staunchly supporting mask requirements. “The guidelines from day one have said that local jurisdictions can make their own determinations about the needs for their populations.”

Hanley rested his argument on the facts: current COVID-19 cases are double what they were in November 2021, and seven times the low in June and July of last year. More importantly, the Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 tracker classified San Mateo County as a “high transmission” area as of March 10, Hanley said. While the transmission level dropped from “high” to “substantial” by March 13, Hanley wanted the Board to wait until the county reached “low transmission” to remove the mask mandate.

Trustees Linda Lees Dwyer and Greg Land focused on enforcement, questioning whether teachers, administrators and students should be given the onus of self-enforcing a “recommended” mask policy. Lees Dwyer offered, and Land supported, a “let’s revisit this” strategy that includes waiting until after spring break to examine the success of relaxed masking in other school districts. 

While Trustee Robert Griffin initially supported moving toward a “strongly recommended” masking policy, he shifted gears after seeing that his colleagues were unanimous in opposition to any changes. 

The trustees also seemed unified in requesting that the administration address issues of “mask bullying” and retaliation for students’ masking choices, especially through leadership-led discussions. 

“They’ve done such a great job on equity, and this is just one more aspect of that,” Land said.