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Los Angeles Unified School District Reaches Agreement To End Indoor Mask Mandate

Kids stand lined-up in a school yard wearing masks.
Kids line up outside school on the first day at Montara Avenue Elementary School in South Gate.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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Starting next week — for the first time in two years — public school students in Los Angeles may be able to attend classes indoors without wearing a mask.

L.A. Unified school officials and leaders of the district’s teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, tentatively agreed Friday to allow an indoor mask mandate to expire. The mask policy will no longer be in effect on Wednesday, March 23.

UPDATE: On March 21, the union announced that 84% of members voted to approve the deal.

The agreement calls for LAUSD to continue testing students and staff for COVID-19 for now. The two sides will meet again in April to reassess whether to continue the tests — which aren’t cheap, but whose cost the federal government may cover.

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The district has agreed to test students before they return from spring recess, which runs from April 11-15.

How We Got Here

If approved, the agreement would represent a new milestone for the nation’s second-largest school system in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, LAUSD has maintained some of the most cautious COVID-19 policies of any big city district in the U.S.

Public health officials in both California and L.A. County lifted their indoor mask mandates for K-12 schools beginning March 12. But LAUSD, the state’s largest school system, has been bound by a labor agreement with UTLA to continue to enforce mask-wearing on campus.

LAUSD was not entirely alone, but it was one of a dwindling number of districts in Southern California maintaining a mask mandate.

A majority of L.A. County school districts have already made masks optional, as have the next five largest districts in the region: Long Beach Unified, San Bernardino City Unified, Corona-Norco Unified, Capistrano Unified and Santa Ana Unified. The state’s third-largest district, Fresno Unified, has also already dropped its mask mandate.

LAUSD is also one of several big-city California school districts where at least some students must continue to mask: Officials in San Diego Unified will maintain their mask mandate until April 4; and in Oakland Unified, until “at least April 15.” San Francisco Unified allowed middle and high schoolers to unmask, but will require elementary students to keep wearing masks indoors until April 2.

‘Politics, Not Science’

In late February, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance saying schools need only require masks when COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates are high in the community. California’s announcement that the state’s blanket mask mandates would end came just days later.

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After chiding California for moving too slowly, opponents of the restrictions are now taking aim at districts, including LAUSD, that haven’t yet dropped mask requirements.

“What’s disturbing about these districts not following public health guidance, is that people who have no public health or medical training are making decisions based on politics, not science,” said Megan Bacigalupi, head of the advocacy organization CA Parent Power, in a statement issued this week.

“If higher-risk adults can unmask,” she continued, “and resume their pre-pandemic lives, all kids should have the same right.”

In any event, mandating masks in school may be no match for the realities of childhood.

“The same kids that are masked all day in class together then leave school and have unmasked play dates and sleepovers,” said LAUSD parent Hayden Victor, “and play sports and go to after-school activities unmasked.”

‘More Than Anything, It’s Fear’

Yet public support for masks remains high in the state. One recent poll showed Californians support mask requirements by a 2-to-1 margin — with even greater support for the policies among Latinos (74%), whose children predominate in L.A. Unified.

“Why is this even up for discussion?” asked Evelyn Aleman, who leads Our Voice, a support and advocacy group of mostly Latino, immigrant parents.

“Some parents say it’s probably for political reasons,” Aleman added. “Our Latino community has been so profoundly impacted by the virus. It’s a big question mark for us.”

Heidi Galicia lives in Florence-Firestone and has four children who attend LAUSD schools. She said her ex-husband died of COVID-19 in July 2020. His death profoundly shook her — and it’s part of the reason she feels it’s too early to remove the mask mandate. People are still catching the virus, she said.

“More than anything, it's fear,” Galicia said. “It's fear that I feel as a mother — that something might happen to me or to one of my children.”

Downside To Playing It Safe?

While most LAUSD students are low-income and Latino, the school district also serves more affluent neighborhoods — and there are signs that parent opinions about mask mandates in those areas are more mixed.

In January, the social media advocacy group Parents Supporting Teachers led a charge for more COVID-19 testing, and has been generally supportive of pandemic precautions. But co-founder Jenna Schwartz said the parents in her group are now split.

Schwartz personally favors making masking optional. Though neighboring Inglewood Unified and Culver City Unified are keeping their mask mandates for now, Schwartz said LAUSD can’t afford to stand firm while most other nearby districts change their policies.

If LAUSD were to keep its mask mandate, “I think there will be a lot of people who look outside the district for schools,” Schwartz said in an interview last week. “And we already are having enrollment issues.”

LAUSD slowly lost students for decades as housing costs rose, birthrates fell and charter schools opened. But the enrollment decline has accelerated since the pandemic’s onset — 44,000 students have left since Fall 2019 — and many suspect that parents who chafe at COVID-19 rules in schools are now among those who’ve fled.

Amanda Breceda, who said she has two children in LAUSD, supported the district’s teachers during their pivotal 2019 strike. Now, she feels union stubbornness has kept LAUSD students masked for too long.

“We adore the teachers,” Breceda wrote in an email, “but if the teachers union is going to have power … because the district allows it, that is just another reason to pull my kids out of LAUSD next year.”

‘The Demands Of A Few’?

But Alejandro Villalpando, who lives in the Westmont neighborhood of South L.A., thinks fears about a parent exodus if LAUSD were to have maintained its masking policy were overblown.

“I just think that’s a misguided, ahistorical, decontextualized reason,” said Villalpando. “I see the responses:These people will move them to private school.’ They’re going to do that regardless … These parents will generally not have their kids in the district anyway.”

Villalpando’s child is a first grader in an LAUSD school. He appreciates that his child’s classroom has so far avoided having to go remote because of an outbreak or a quarantining teacher. Masking, he said, has had something to do with that.

“LAUSD has done a good job heeding the calls of the union to keep us all safe,” he said. “They should keep doing that, not bow to the demands of a few.”

While case numbers and hospitalizations have fallen, Gov. Gavin Newsom and public health officials have left the door open to bringing back mask mandates in the event of another surge — a surge some public health experts fear is coming.

But Lisa Pickering worries that reinstating a mask mandate in LAUSD won’t be so easy.

“Once we take away the mandate,” the parent of two LAUSD students said in an interview, “we’re never going to be able to put it back in.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).