LA Unified's School Mask Mandate Has Ended. Here’s How Many Noses We’re Seeing
After two years of the pandemic, donning a face mask has become just as routine as putting on makeup for Tina Hernandez.
Now that the Los Angeles Unified School District has dropped its indoor mask requirement, Hernandez is in no rush to unmask her 6-year-old son, Anthony. She’s fine with giving students and staff a choice, but she doesn’t feel conditions are safe enough for her first grader to unmask.
“My whole household is fully vaccinated, boosters and everything,” Hernandez said as she dropped Anthony off at LAUSD’s Wilmington Park Elementary School on Wednesday, the first day of the district's new mask policy. “But, you know, we still know that there's people that haven't gotten their boosters or their shots — not even one.”
Wednesday’s change in LAUSD mask policy follows an agreement reached late last week with the district’s teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The change from required to “recommended” masking marks a watershed moment in the pandemic for a district that has taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously — too seriously, some critics would say — since the beginning.
As the new policy took effect Wednesday, experiences varied. Parents on some campuses noticed immediate differences in mask-wearing habits. Other teachers said few students had ditched their face coverings so far.
At one Palms elementary school, one parent estimated that three-quarters of students were unmasked. A parent volunteer at an Encino elementary school said about half of the students in second grade, and about one-quarter of staff, were maskless on Wednesday morning.
Some schools saw big differences classroom to classroom. Carmel Levitan’s children attend an elementary school in Eagle Rock: only three of her first graders’ classmates were masked on Wednesday morning — but nearly all of her fifth graders’ peers were wearing face coverings.
At Wilmington Park Elementary, however, most students were still wearing masks.
“I think it’s good, it’s a little more freedom, but we’re going to keep using them,” said Dalia Ruiz, who has three girls at Wilmington Park.
Some [students] said it was for safety, some said it’s just weird to see people unmasked.
“I’m not worried, we’re all vaccinated, but I’m still going to take precautions for a while longer,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz’s daughter Carla, who’s in fifth grade, said she’d probably keep bringing her mask to school “to not risk getting infected.” She said wearing a mask bothered her at first but now she’s used to it.
Caught Between Hope And Skepticism
Middle and high school teachers from Cudahy to San Fernando to Silver Lake told KPCC/LAist the vast majority of students on their campuses kept their masks on.
“Some [students] said it was for safety, some said it’s just weird to see people unmasked,” said Sean Longstreet, a music teacher at University High School in West L.A. “I wonder if some are not comfortable showing their faces (maybe they’re insecure).”
“I would’ve thought that kids would’ve been very happy to take off their masks,” said James Hoyt-McDaniels, who teaches seventh and eighth grade history at Roy Romer Middle School in North Hollywood, “but that seems not to be the case.”
Hoyt-McDaniels estimated that 95% of his students kept their masks on. He said most students are simply used to the masks at this point.
While he supports the district’s new policy, he also noted that the public health situation still feels fluid. Hoyt-McDaniels said that for much of this year, each day, at least one of his students has been absent with a COVID-19 case. It was only within the last month that he taught his first class without an absence this school year.
Ben Feinberg, who teaches math at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park, believes his students are keeping their masks on because they're worried about their attendance.
"Some of them had coronavirus," Feinberg explained, "and they had to miss school, and that is the worst thing to them right now: nobody wants to miss school. That means missing out on time with friends and missing out on lessons and catching up — nobody wants that."
Feinberg said only one of his students was completely unmasked on Wednesday. Maybe five more were wearing their masks incorrectly — which is par for the course. The only thing that's different today is that he didn't have to correct their mask-wearing behavior.
Feinberg suspects maybe one-quarter of his students want to take their masks off, but may not feel comfortable enough yet. Several teachers predicted it would take days or even weeks for most students to decide how they want to handle masking.
Teacher Anna Soffer points out the last "normal," pre-pandemic year of school was the 2018-19 school year, during which her current students — now in middle school — would've been in third grade.
On Wednesday, all of Soffer's students had their faces covered. So did she.
"A lot of time is going to be spent making sure the kids feel safe, and comfortable, and healthy," said Soffer, who teaches history at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake. "It could take a little while."