Culture war over masks and vaccines divides California high school students

A San Diego Unified student is vaccinated at school. Courtesy of the Neighborhood

Anthony Pritchett, a senior from Nevada Union High, sat nervously during a school board meeting Tuesday night as angry crowds yelled at each other over a vote to violate state law and raise the mask mandate for his students.

“There was just a lot of screaming,” he said. “It was very hostile. When the resolution was passed at the end, there was thunderous applause and shouting that lasted at least a minute.

As debates over mask and vaccine mandates escalate, the polarization extends to student life in California. Students on both sides are being harassed for their beliefs, while education officials caught in the crossfire must balance how to enforce COVID-19 protocols and provide education for all students. Meanwhile, a Feb. 28 update from state officials on the school masking policy looms.

“Friend groups have fractured over this,” said Pritchett, 18, who is a student board member for the Nevada Joint Union High School District, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento.

“There’s a lot of tension on campus,” he says. “There are frequent protests and walkouts mainly against vaccines and masks.”

On Thursday, the district of 2,600 students closed schools because so many teachers called in sick in response to the vote. Making masks optional violated an agreement between the district and the teachers’ union, which states that any changes to safety protocols must be negotiated.

“The overwhelming message is that teachers don’t feel supported,” said teachers’ union president Eric Mayer. “They have the impossible decision to defy the board or defy state law.”

The Nevada Joint Union High School District is not the first in California to make masking inside school optional. Leaders in several other districts made the decision in recent weeks in response to growing anger from parents and community members, especially as the state lifted other mask mandates for those vaccinated.

Research has clearly shown that face coverings reduce the risk of spread and that vaccines reduce transmission and help prevent serious illnesses. And, according to a new poll, most California voters support mask and vaccine mandates for schools.

Students and educators say their school communities are already past the breaking point.

“The state has said we’re going to keep masks in schools, but we don’t have an effective mechanism to enforce that,” Nevada Joint Union High superintendent Brett McFadden said ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “If we have any disturbances at the moment, we cannot call the police. We have no one to call.

Students enter the fray

One day a week, 16-year-old Kinsey Hage refuses to wear a mask at school. She calls it “Freedom Fridays.” Hage, a junior from Bella Vista High School in the San Juan Unified School District near Sacramento, started the protest alone in January. Today, more than 100 of his peers attend.

“It’s really frustrating to know that celebrities and adults can go to the Super Bowl without a mask,” she said. “I honestly think it’s so ridiculous and unfair.”

While some friends and teachers support her, Hage said her beliefs and activism have ended friendships and damaged her relationships with other teachers.

“All these friends I’ve known since middle school won’t recognize me anymore,” she said. “I started eating with new friends.”

Then there are the most unpleasant encounters at school and on social networks.

“I had kids at school who literally told me to kill myself,” she said. “They’ll say ‘wear your mask’, or they’ll insult me.”

Jaxson Barrett, a 17-year-old from Carlsbad High School near San Diego, says he was denied entry to his class for two weeks for refusing to wear a mask.

“I was just tired of wearing them,” he said. “I wanted to see what was going on. I went to class and was expelled immediately.

He said he sat outside all school day trying to keep up with his homework, despite the cold and rainy weather. A dozen students eventually joined him.

Other students across California have called for stricter masking enforcement and greater access to vaccinations and high-quality masks.

Michael Lee-Chang, a senior at Redondo Union High School in Los Angeles County, spoke out on social media to maintain campus safety protocols. He joined hundreds of students in a January walkout to urge school leaders to step up masking and physical distancing in classrooms.

Lee-Chang’s activism has led others to bully him, he says. The 18-year-old has become the target of harassment from conservative parents on social media. Students dropped cartons of milk on his head, he said, adding that he now takes a different route to his classes to avoid certain groups of students.

“Every time I meet them, they shout: ‘unmask the children!'”, he says. “In a perfect world, everyone would be vaccinated and we would test daily, but we don’t live in that world.

Educators have their hands tied

Teachers and school district officials are caught between public health and education laws.

If a student refuses to wear a mask, teachers must remove that student from class or risk losing their credentials for violating state law. But at the same time, school districts are required to provide education to all students.

And while independent home study is an option for these students, parents must enroll in it. When parents refuse, state education laws require the student to be placed in a classroom setting. Education officials like Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, superintendent at the Placer County Office of Education, believe there’s no way out of this loop.

“We’re caught in a Catch-22,” Garbolino-Mojica said. “In reality, no one wants to physically abduct the children.”

Ultimately, some teachers keep students out, while others just let them into the classroom. Along with legal and logistical challenges, the damage to relationships between educators and their students could be irreparable. Educators across the state are worried about whether public education can recover.

“I will say that the fabric of our schools is deteriorating minute by minute,” Garbolino-Mojica said. “I am personally worried and concerned about what our communities will look like once this is over.”

Parents across the state are sharing instructions online on how students can challenge masking rules. Let Them Breathe, an anti-mask mandate advocacy group, has posted some of these resources on its website. According to Superintendent Colleen Hawkins, younger students memorize scripts at the Saugus Union School District, a K-6 district in Los Angeles County.

“Today across the district there are probably about 85 students who have refused to wear masks,” Hawkins said Tuesday. “They say, ‘It’s my First Amendment right.'”

Because her district primarily serves younger children, Hawkins said teachers and administrators are careful not to scold or punish these students.

“We just can’t have them in the room with their peers,” she said.

Hawkins and several other district leaders across California say they have written to the governor and other lawmakers asking them to lift the indoor mask mandate for schools and retain a personal belief exemption for the COVID vaccination requirement. -19.

Two years into the pandemic, local education officials are more willing to risk sacrificing safety protocols to maintain order in their communities.

“I worry about the frustration everyone is feeling and what it will mean for public education,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know how communities will continue to trust their local school districts.”

Local leaders challenging the state

A handful of school districts did not wait for state officials to relax regulations.

“For me, it started with the governor’s press conference, when he said he was going to lift the mandate for everyone except school children and teachers,” said Jee Manghani, chairman of the council. administration of the Rancho Santa Fe School District in San Diego County.

His school board voted Monday to make masks optional for students. Manghani and other district leaders said the benefits outweighed the risks.

“I was already convinced that even if the state disagreed, we were making the right decision,” said Board Vice Chair Annette Ross.

At Nevada Joint Union High School, it remains unclear when teachers will begin returning to school. Teachers’ union president Mayer said the teacher absences are not an organized effort.

For some board members, giving in to the anti-mask crowd not only violates state law, but also sets a precedent for the impending vaccine mandate. The California Department of Public Health will require students to be vaccinated once the FDA fully approves the vaccine for their age groups. Students may need to be vaccinated as early as July 1.

Nevada Joint Union board member Jamie Reeves voted to maintain the masking requirement to honor the district’s agreement with his teachers. She said it was an unfortunate precedent to set, but she admits trying to enforce statewide COVID-19 mandates takes too much of educators’ time and energy.

“I left that meeting with a broken heart,” she said. “But how much time do we spend managing this, and how much time do we spend educating children?”

Pritchett, who has seen more than half of his high school career disrupted by the pandemic, said compromising security may be the only way to have peace.

“I wish this culture war could have happened somewhere else,” he said. “It’s a huge distraction for education.”

CalMatters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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