Mask wearing will no longer be mandatory at Santa Monica public schools beginning Monday, following a unanimous (6-0) vote by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education at a special meeting held Wednesday, March 9.

The decision came following a recommendation by SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati, who earlier in the week announced he felt it was time to lift the mask mandate. Drati’s advice was that the School District continue its robust testing regimen as well as recommend students remain masked despite the lifting of the mandate.

Beginning Monday, March 14, masking will move “from required to strongly recommended” for all students in grades TK-12 as well as educators; new masking rules will apply regardless of vaccination status.

Board Member Jon Kean took those recommendations a step further, offering five suggestions, what he called “five points,” to amend Drati’s original suggestions.

Because of the swift turnaround between the Wednesday decision and Monday implementation, Kean suggested the week of March 14-18 have a lenient absentee policy to allow parents to gauge their level of comfort with students returning to unmasked classrooms.

“We have a large number of people that are weighing independent study. It’s Wednesday; they have to decide by Monday,” Kean said. “I really encourage the District to do something with these individuals to give them time to make a decision … The people that want masks off Monday: I get it. But imagine if you have a kid that’s medically fragile, and you’re trying to make a decision, and you’ve been given 72 hours. Let’s give these people some time to make a decision.”

Kean’s second request was that the School District focus on ways to keep students safe for the week following Spring Break, a time when many families travel and there may be a higher likelihood of COVID-19 spread. Kean’s suggestion was that all school sites administer PCR tests upon return to class and mandate masks the first week after Spring Break – April 18-22.

Third, Kean said he wanted to see the District enforce policies that would see asymptomatic people who have tested positive and/or had close contacts who tested positive continue to mask with medical-grade masks: “I do not feel we’ve done a great job with that.”

Next, Kean addressed the issue of bullying, both of students who claim they have been victims due to continued mask wearing and those who say they’ve been bullied because they do not wear them.

Finally, Kean requested the District continue to supply “the best quality masks for our students who are medically fragile if they need it.”

Kean said he had hoped to be celebrating the lifting of mask mandates, but ongoing tension and incivility between parents made it impossible to have a jovial atmosphere at the meeting.

“I know people are saying, ‘Oh, they’re just scared of COVID.’ No, they’re not scared of COVID. There are people in our community who are scared of dying,” Kean said. “I’ve spoken with these people. They’re not scared of COVID; they’re scared that COVID could cause them to die or that their child with diabetes could die. That’s — that’s real.” Kean said he would personally have supported waiting to lift the mask mandate until following Spring Break, but as a board member he was willing to follow direction from the Superintendent.

“As a board member, I do believe that our community is ready to move to the next step, which is that personal responsibility to choose what they want to do — whether you want to follow the recommendation to keep masks up or whether you want to unmask,” Kean said. “I will support the Superintendent’s recommendation, because I think our community is at that point.”

Although not formalized, other Board Members in attendance appeared supportive of Kean’s five points. All Board Members in attendance touched on the issue of bullying.

“I support the Superintendent’s recommendation, and I support John’s call for no bullying anywhere, in any direction, and making sure that folks have time to adapt … and move their lives in a place that is safe for them within our system,” Board Member Craig Foster said.

One teacher who spoke at the meeting, Claudia Bautista-Nicholas, who also represents the Santa Monica Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, spoke to urge empathy for those who wish to continue masking.

“We all have been affected by this virus and, although I am happy that our current risk in LA County is slow, the fear that many feel regarding this virus is very real. As a union, we firmly believe in following the science and the guidance of our LA County DPH [Department of Public Health] officials,” Bautista Nicholas said. “We share their optimism as we see the declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that allow us to see the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel. However, we need to keep in mind that approximately 32 percent of our overall community and a higher percentage of our Spanish speaking community still feel uneasy about lifting this indoor mask mandate. So, I urge you and I urge our community to be empathetic to the needs of others in their community and to respect their right to follow the strongly recommended guidance to continue masking indoors.”

Drati’s recommendation followed a survey of about 5,200 community members during the first week of March, after LA County and the State of California announced the lifting of mandatory masking rules.

The majority of those who took the survey — 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 third 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.

SMMUSD staff remained unable 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.

Board Members Maria Leon-Vazaquez, Laurie Lieberman, Jennifer Smith, Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein, Kean and Foster voted in favor of the resolution, as did the student Board Member representing Samohi, Nathan Castanaza. Board Member Keith Coleman was absent for the vote.

emily@smdp.com