When school started last week, Mountain View Whisman was one of the few districts in the region with a mask mandate in place. Now, as of Friday, Aug. 19, masks are optional as COVID case rates fall in Santa Clara County.
The district planned to keep the mask requirement in place for as long as the county was in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "high" tier for COVID-19 risk. On Thursday, Aug. 18, Santa Clara County shifted into the "medium" tier.
Superintendent Ayindé Rudolph announced at a school board meeting on Thursday evening that masks while indoors would be recommended, but not mandated, beginning on Friday. Face masks will still be required in certain settings, such as assemblies and other large gatherings.
School board members gave feedback on the district's masking rules, but didn't take a formal vote on the topic at Thursday's meeting.
According to Rudolph, the basic principle behind the district's COVID-19 safety measures is ensuring kids have access to safe, in-person instruction. With employee shortages, Rudolph said that the district wants to ensure there are enough healthy teachers available to cover classrooms. When a teacher tests positive for COVID-19, they are required to stay home for at least five days.
The district's decision to begin the year with masks required indoors was met with support from some parents and opposition from others. Many other local school districts have opted not to require masks this fall.
Mask requirements have led to heated controversies in school districts throughout the country. On Thursday, a video showing a dispute over masking in Mountain View Whisman went viral on Twitter.
In the video clip, a staff member, who has been identified as Theuerkauf Elementary School's principal, can be seen calmly telling a parent that their child needs to wear a mask and then walking the student out of a classroom, saying that the student is welcome at school, but that district policy requires masking. After what appear to be multiple attempts to ask the parent to have their student wear a mask, a police officer is called to campus and can be heard discussing the mask requirement with the parent.
The child's father has told other news outlets that his son has sensory issues that make wearing a mask difficult and that he was excluded from class for not abiding by the masking rule. The dad has said he is considering suing the district.
In a statement, Rudolph said that he stands behind the principal and police officer, and that it was "very unfortunate" the parent chose to record the video after the principal repeatedly asked him not to.
"This parent worked with an advocacy group outside Mountain View to create a professional video in order to nationally shame a public servant doing her job while maintaining a safe and orderly school," Rudolph said.
At Thursday's meeting, board member Chris Chiang appeared to reference the video, stating that when a parent put a disagreement that took place on a local school campus onto social media, it made the incident into a broader political issue and brought risk to children.
"There's so much nasty politics and dangerous rhetoric and ideologies out there," Chiang said. "We're bringing a target to our district when we do that."
He asked parents not to post online and instead to talk within the district about issues they have. Chiang also emphasized the importance of trustees being good listeners to parents' concerns.
Board member Devon Conley said that all kids have experienced loss during the pandemic and that as a parent, she is grieving the ways her child's life has changed. At the same time, she said that there are organized groups, such as California Parents United, that spread misinformation and take advantage of vulnerable parents.
Only three members of the public spoke during the masking discussion at Thursday's meeting, each thanking the district for its work to develop COVID-19 safety measures. One additional commenter who identified herself as Tracy Henderson, the founder of California Parents United, spoke earlier in the meeting in opposition to mask requirements. California Parents United opposes masks, COVID-19 testing and quarantining, and encourages parents to file complaints and lawsuits against districts and teachers.
When it came to the details of the district's specific policy, Rudolph asked the trustees for feedback on how to move forward. Trustee Laura Ramirez Berman said she personally will continue to send her children to school wearing high quality masks, but is interested in exploring alternatives to it being a requirement.
Chiang advocated for using the number of student and staff absences as the metric for whether to require masks, rather than broader community transmission rates. Other board members expressed interest in that idea. Ellen Wheeler said she would also support requiring masks in the days following school breaks, when many people may have been traveling.
The board didn't make any formal decisions. District spokesperson Shelly Hausman said that district staff will continue to have discussions with the board about the mask rules.