CALIFORNIA ENDED ITS mask mandate for fully vaccinated people Feb. 15 for all but school staff and students, prompting protests across the state. Most school districts are sending unmasked students home, but the number of schools that are welcoming them is growing.

The state will likely drop its school mask mandate sometime after Feb. 28, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly announced at a news conference this past Monday. Until then, state health officials will review student vaccination rates, COVID case numbers, hospitalization rates and national and global trends to determine an appropriate time to drop the mandate, he said.

But some districts are not waiting. School district officials at most of California’s small rural districts have decided to stop disciplining or excluding students from school if they don’t comply with requests to wear masks, said Tim Taylor, executive director of the California Small School Districts’ Association, which represents 600 school districts and charter schools.

“A lot of districts throughout the state are loosening up and just trying to get through the next two weeks,” Taylor said. “Parents are getting upset and saying everything is maskless except schools.”

Small rural schools aren’t the only ones ignoring the law. Roseville Joint Union High School District, which serves 12,000 students at nine schools in Placer County east of Sacramento, made wearing masks optional for all students as of this week.

In a letter to families and staff, Superintendent John Becker said the school board, which passed a resolution to end masking requirements on Feb. 10, cited the need to protect students’ social-emotional health, as well as their physical health, as the reason for the decision.

“We are aware of the growing mental health concerns of our young people, and we are taking the initiative to allow students and families to decide which option is best for them,” said board President Scott Huber, who was quoted in the letter. Huber declined an interview for this story.

No choice for schools

Individual school districts and local health authorities — like county departments of public health — have the right to make their own masking policies after the statewide mandate is dropped, Ghaly said. But, he told a reporter that school districts don’t have the authority to make that decision now.

“A district like Roseville, they’re in the state of California, so this state’s requirements apply,” Ghaly said. “And I think that will be an important point to make, not just here but for other efforts that we’ve used throughout this pandemic, and we may need to use down the road as well.”

COVID safety measures like masking have allowed California schools to remain open for in-person instruction, Ghaly said. California has 12 percent of the students in the nation but had only 1 percent of its school closures this year, he said.

“We don’t make hasty decisions,” Ghaly said. “We will take the collection of information together to make a decision that is good for California.”

But some school districts are feeling the pressure to remove the mask mandate. El Dorado Union High School District, which serves 6,846 students at five schools in El Dorado County, released a statement Tuesday that said it would educate students about wearing masks and ask them to wear them, but would not exclude them from campuses if they failed to comply.

“We are caught in the middle of a very difficult and progressively escalating situation where we acknowledge our obligation to comply with state and California Department of Public Health mandates and our actual ability to enforce those mandates,” read the statement.

One of the district’s schools — Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills — was the site of a large student walkout Tuesday in protest of the mask mandate, according to media reports.

District officials did not return a call from EdSource.

“We will continue to do our best to comply with the law,” read the district’s statement. “Our school liability carriers all warn us that if we take explicit action to defy state guidance we will be held liable and accountable for any such decisions and in a very litigious society we have no legal protection. Our liability carriers will not be held accountable for our willful defiance of the California Department of Public Health.”

Local guidelines determine mandates

There is some confusion about whose job it is to enforce the state mask mandate. According to state officials, enforcement falls on the shoulders of local health officials, who can subject school officials to fines or other penalties.

But in Placer County, at least, public health authorities say they have no enforcement role when it comes to state mask requirements in schools.

“Placer County Public Health continues to recommend that residents wear high-quality masks for respiratory protection in indoor settings to reduce their exposure to COVID-19, and continues to meet with school leaders to support their implementation of state guidance,” said the department in a statement released to EdSource. “However, Local Public Health has no enforcement role of state COVID-19 guidance regarding the use of masks within K-12 educational facilities. Rather, this is a question that should be explored by districts in collaboration with the state and other stakeholders.”

“Unfortunately, some elected officials and school leaders have expressed the intent to violate the law — and risk their students’ safety — by failing to enforce the universal mask requirement for indoor school settings.”

Tomás J. Aragón, California Department of Public Health

A letter from Tomás J. Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health and the state public health officer, in August warned school leaders of the potential implications of ignoring the mask mandate.

“Unfortunately, some elected officials and school leaders have expressed the intent to violate the law — and risk their students’ safety — by failing to enforce the universal mask requirement for indoor school settings,” Aragón stated. “To be clear: failure to enforce the mask requirement breaches not only a legal duty, but also the first and foremost duty of every school leader — to protect students. Violation of mandatory public health guidance puts the health and safety of students, staff and their families, needlessly at risk, and also carries significant legal, financial, and other risks.”

School and district officials involved in the decision to ignore the state mandate could be financially liable if a staff member or student contracts COVID-19 or dies from the virus, Aragón said. They also could face civil lawsuits from families and staff compelling them to comply with the guidance.

Risk of lawsuits and more

Most California school districts’ insurance policies do not cover lawsuits or other losses if someone contracts a communicable disease. Districts with insurance policies that do cover that could still be at risk of losing coverage for infections and lawsuits related to COVID-19 if they ignore state mandates and allow students and teachers to go to class without wearing masks.

Certificated school staff, including school administrators, could also be disciplined by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing for violating their legal duty to implement masking, according to the state education code.

Roseville Joint Union’s Becker sent a different message Tuesday. In a letter to school staff, the superintendent assured teachers that they could not be held liable for not enforcing the mandate. He said that, according to legal advice given to the district, the California Department of Public Health does not require teachers or other school staff to enforce the mandate.

The Roseville Secondary Education Association, which represents the district’s teachers, said the decision not to mandate masks in classrooms is putting teachers in a bad situation.

“Teachers, who have been under constant pressure and attack these last two years, are now being turned into the enemy not only in our own district but across the nation,” said a statement from the union in part. “The resolution in response to COVID protocols passed by the Board 4-0 on Thursday, Feb. 10, will only intensify this pressure and stress when teachers are forced to choose between violating the state mandate or violating the board’s decision starting Tuesday (Feb. 15). Teachers have now been put in a no-win situation no matter what we try to do.”

But school board members and administrators are feeling pressure from parents and students — particularly in more conservative parts of the state — who are tired of mask mandates and other COVID protocols. That pressure increased after last week’s announcement, spurring protests at schools and district offices across the state.

Enforcement difficult

Fifty students at Bear River High School in Grass Valley were sent home this past Tuesday because they refused to wear masks, and about 30 students at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley left their classes that day to join an anti-mask protest outside, said Brett McFadden, superintendent of the Nevada Joint Union High School District.

He said some students refused to wear masks Wednesday morning as well, but there were no protests.

It’s growing more and more difficult, particularly in rural districts where mask-wearing was so-so to begin with,” McFadden said. “Now, starting today, the indoor requirements are being loosened, but we don’t have any definitive guidance from the state about when the mask mandate will be removed for schools, and all the stakeholders — after two years of this — are getting extremely tired of it.”

McFadden says that schools should follow the same rules as the rest of the community, and he expects his school board will join neighboring jurisdictions in considering dropping the mask mandate.

“If they wait, in this area, it is quite possible that the seams could bust,” he said. “You hear about what Roseville did, and that is only 45 minutes from me, and that created a considerable amount of stir here. We have a growing and very vocal voice here saying enough is enough.”

This story originally appeared in EdSource.