Masks mandatory for Santa Clara County students
Students, like those pictured at Merritt Trace Elementary School, will have to wear masks when they return to the classroom in the fall. Photo courtesy of SJUSD.

The excitement of returning to school may be dimmed for Santa Clara County students, as they’ll have to wear masks when they go back to the classroom this fall.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended indoor masking for all teachers, school employees, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. California guidelines go one step further and require masks indoors at schools.

The CDC previously said vaccinated individuals didn’t need to wear masks inside school buildings, but updated its guidance due to the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant.

CDC Director Rochelle Paula Walensky said at a news conference Tuesday that in rare occasions, vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant may spread the virus to others. 

“This new science is worrisome,” Walensky said, “and unfortunately, warrants an update to our former recommendations.”

San Jose Unified School District spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said the district follows California Department of Public Health mandates and informed parents, students, teachers and other employees a couple of weeks ago that masks will be required indoors, regardless of vaccination status. SJUSD also requires masks to be worn outdoors, except while eating, drinking or during intensive sports. 

Exceptions to wearing masks include teachers alone in classrooms or individuals alone outdoors. Individuals who are exempt from mask wearing due to medical conditions are required to wear face shields with draping, she said.

The move to require masks in school settings is already facing backlash.

On July 22, parent advocacy groups Let Them Breathe and Reopen California Schools jointly sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and state public health officials for requiring students to wear masks in schools, saying they interfere with student learning.

Reopen California Schools founder Jonathan Zachreson said returning to a normal school year after distance learning is crucial to kids’ mental health.

“We really just need to get those kids back to normal,” he told San José Spotlight.

Zachreson said the groups are hearing from parents and teachers, especially of young kids and those who speak English as a second language, that wearing masks inhibits students’ abilities to learn sounds and words.

“You have to see how the mouth is moving, facial cues and emotional response,” he said. “Masks get in the way of being able to properly teach kids.”

Mary Ann Dewan, superintendent of schools for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, told San José Spotlight that wearing face coverings indoors is an effective strategy to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

But Dewan said there is a narrow exception to wearing masks for developmental reasons, such as phonics instruction. She said where face coverings cannot be used for communicating, assisting young children or those with special needs, a face shield with a drape can be used in the classroom as long as the wearer maintains physical distance from others.

Let Them Breathe founder Sharon McKeeman said while COVID-19 is not very deadly for children, mental health disorders can be.

“We know our kids are at low risk from COVID. Unfortunately, our children are at very high risk from the mental health impact,” she said, adding that wearing masks can be difficult for kids with ADHD and for teachers trying to engage with students.

Maddox doesn’t consider masks a hindrance to student learning. She said when students returned to school in the spring, wearing masks didn’t seem to be a problem.

“The situations deemed most risky for COVID to transmit are indoor spaces where people can’t be distanced more than six feet, and that’s essentially what our classrooms are,” she said. “We’re seeing a rise in the Delta variant; we’re seeing it spreads a lot more easily and we know masks are one of the best preventative strategies we have.”

Maddox said having everyone wearing a mask also avoids discrimination against those who can’t get the vaccine.

“We don’t want to identify them or make them a target,” she said. “Making everyone wear masks is safer and equalizes things.”

Hilaria Bauer, superintendent of Alum Rock Union School District, said during the district’s summer program with about 2,000 in-person students, only one family had concerns about masking indoors.

“It’s about thinking about your neighbor,” Bauer said. “Wearing masks is a good hygienic habit we need to learn. It’s like washing our hands and brushing our teeth to prevent illness.”

East Side Union High School District Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee informed parents last week that everyone will be required to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Although he said he’s aware of the discomfort students and teachers may have wearing masks, Vander Zee told San José Spotlight “the concern is making sure everyone feels safe.”

“It can be a long day wearing the mask,” he said. “Students will have the opportunity to unmask during class breaks.”

Vander Zee said teachers will have to read the room as students become accustomed to wearing masks all day and provide additional breaks to make sure they’re not a barrier to instruction. He said the school district’s reopening committee, made up of students, parents and teachers, agreed most individuals understand wearing masks is for the safety of everyone.

“I think our community will step up and do that,” he said, “and support each other.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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