Newhall School District asks for more leniency on mask policies

SIGNAL FILE PHOTO: Bridgeport Elementary students walk to their classrooms on the first day of school on Wednesday, August 9, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Newhall School District board members voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the California Department of Public Health to provide new face-covering guidance to give the district discretion over whether to make masks optional.

The motion comes on the heels of a number of districts that have had to answer questions from families and staff about the mask policies that will be in place for the coming year.

As of Thursday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and California Department of Public Health did not specifically request distancing between students while in the classroom, but did require masks indoors.

The motion approved by the Newhall district’s governing board formally requests that the district be given discretion to decide its own optional mask-wearing policies, saying that it would give “voice to the desires expressed by many district teachers, families and students.”

“The resolution says, ‘Hey, we have unique circumstances, we’re elected officials and we need to be able to make that determination based on the needs of our community,’” said Brian Walters, president of the Newhall School District board.

Walters said the district has been, and will continue to be, in line with public health policy, and the district only allows for those with medical exemptions to be exempted from the mask policy. They have had no outbreaks from student-to-student, student-to-teacher or teacher-to-student contact, he said.

Pending no changes to the current health policy, Walters said the board has not yet decided on how the district will engage with families that choose to not follow the mask rules, but that the board plans to continue to have those discussions as the school year approaches.

While the Newhall School District remains alone among local districts in asking for this kind of leniency with regard to the blanket indoor mask mandate from the county, other school districts in the Santa Clarita Valley have had similar conversations during their board meetings.

Last week, Saugus Union School District officials emphasized they would be in accordance with state Public Health policy, and that the current policy requires masks indoors unless vaccinated. In response to a request for comment Thursday, Superintendent Colleen Hawkins sent a statement she’s been distributing to parents that pointed out that most of the district’s student population can’t be vaccinated, yet, so the CDC and Public Health mask mandate would apply.

The William S. Hart Union High School District announced last week that it would continue its practice of staying in line with public health policy and requiring indoor mask-wearing.

“Masks are still required indoors, and we can’t just change that,” said Hart district governing board member Joe Messina on Thursday. “But staff is looking at the options for the issue, and when the board comes back together, we will discuss.”

Castaic Union School District Superintendent Steve Doyle said the school district has successfully returned its students to in-person learning since the spring with no outbreaks, and would continue to follow public health guidelines.

“CUSD has diligently followed all the protocols issued by California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) throughout the entire pandemic,” said Doyle. “We will continue to follow the guidance from CDPH and LACDPH, as they are the experts in advising public health.”

“Currently, the restrictive guidelines are at the county level and we feel that we’re required to follow that,” said Ken Chase, president of the Sulphur Springs Union School District board. “As mandates change, we will look at the situation.

Sulphur Springs Superintendent Catherine Kawaguchi agreed with Chase and said the district would continue to follow the guidance from CDPH and LACDPH as they prepare to start the new school year in August.

“I, personally, would recommend to anybody who has concerns about the mask mandates that they reach out to the county’s Public Health Department and the Board of Supervisors,” Chase said, noting district officials will continue to monitor the situation.

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