Mask: SMMUSD is debating when to lift mask mandates for local students. Courtesy image

The final decision will come from the School Board, which will hold a special meeting on March 9.

Following state guidance and the desire of just about half of teachers, parents and students who responded to a School District survey last week, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Superintendent Ben Drati will recommend schools stop requiring masks indoors beginning Monday, March 14.

The recommendation will go before the SMMUSD School Board during a special meeting on March 9, which will include a public hearing.

Local school officials are working on “off-ramping” COVID-19 protocols as Los Angeles County exits the omicron virus surge this month, in the words of State Senator and former School Board Member Ben Allen. Allen spoke during a health symposium organized by the District on Monday, March 7, days after the State of California lifted its school mask mandates, followed by a lifting of countywide regulations.

“From where I sit, I hear from everyone — everyone involved with the District — students, parents and staff. And it takes all three of those groups to have a successful learning experience,” Drati said. “And if people are scared, nervous for their safety or have concerns, we can’t have a smooth and rewarding education that they should have.” Drati said the news of statewide mask mandates lifting was alarming for some people and cause for celebration for others, which is why he decided to host the seminar to get everyone on the same page.

Of roughly 5,200 community members surveyed by the District in the short window between the state’s announcement and Monday’s seminar, the majority — 68.2 percent — indicated they would “support SMMUSD aligning with the County’s updated guidance regarding indoor masking from Required to Strongly Recommended.” However, a much narrower majority — 50.8 percent — said they wanted mask mandates lifted on March 14, which is as early as LA County recommendations allowed. Roughly a quarter of those who responded — 31.1 percent — said the District should lift mandatory masking at the end of the 2021-22 school year. The remaining 18.1 percent of respondents split the difference, saying the SMMUSD should require masks until one week following spring break: April 25.

As of Tuesday, SMMUSD staff were not able to provide data that showed how responses varied between parents, teachers and students surveyed. Nearly three-quarters of respondents were parents, while 15.5 percent were students and about 11 percent were staff.

Allen, who moderated the seminar, asked if independent study was an option for parents and students who did not feel comfortable attending class with no mask mandate in place.

Drati said it was, but said the District would be “in trouble” if all 31.1 percent of survey respondents who said they wanted masks in place through the end of the school year moved to independent study.

“‘I’m trying my best to try to tell people that we got this, that things are going to be safe, and if there’s that much of a concern, then they can still continue to wear a mask, but the ability to go to independent study is still there,” Drati said, later adding, “If we get a whole host of students, for example, let’s say that 31 percent — the ones that said they wanted masking to go through the end of the year — if 31 percent of them say, ‘I want to go to independent study,’ then yes, we’re in trouble. That’s an issue we’ve got to deal with.”

Also present in the seminar were health experts including Dr. Nava Yeganeh, a pediatric infectious disease physician currently serving as the medical director for Vaccine Preventable Disease Control at LACDPH and associate professor of Preventative Medicine at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

Yeganeh said the lifting of mask mandates in LA County is not necessarily a permanent move.

“At the County, we are really tracking things that we think are early indicators of another surge,” Yeganeh said. “We do think that there will be future surges of COVID-19. So, unfortunately, we can’t say with great certainty that masks, you know, are a thing of the past. We do think that there will be some times when we’ll have high concern for a surge and, at that point, we might recommend masks more strongly.”

Later in the seminar, Allen asked about the potential for bullying of mask wearers or pressure to remove masks that kids may feel in the classroom.

Drati said he and other administrators would continue to wear masks around school campuses to help encourage indoor mask wearing.

Yeganeh also responded to the question, saying it was important to note masks are always an option: “I would like to focus on the message that no mask mandate does not mean no mask.”

Drati said the District would continue its robust weekly testing protocols, which he hoped would bring comfort to students, parents and teachers who were uncomfortable with the move.

“I think, as you can see, what I’m recommending is going to make a whole host of families insecure about the situation,” Drati acknowledged. “I think the testing will help people feel secure about knowing what’s happening on our sites, that we are actually watchful.”

The mask mandate will be discussed at the Wednesday, March 9, special school board meeting, which can be streamed on Zoom at 870 2887 3647 ; passcode: 404138 ; call-in number: 669.900.6833, or watched live on Channel 3.

emily@smdp.com