ALPINE, Calif. (KGTV) - State officials are pushing back against an East County school district’s hopes to open the school year with mask-optional classrooms.
Recently, the state announced it will let local schools decide how to enforce a mask mandate for all students.
“Our interpretation is … we’ll be given the opportunity to decide if we require masks in the classroom,” said Alpine Union School District Rich Newman.
On Wednesday night, the Alpine Union School Board, which oversees the pre-K to 8th-grade district, met and voted.
“The board decided, if in fact, we have the discretion, that we would make them optional for our students,” said Newman. “With the high vaccine rates, the variables have changed this year, and our parents feel strongly about not wearing masks.”
Cori Bertalan, the mother of an 8th grader, applauded the decision.
“I am extremely happy. We’d be in the pickup line, and see all these students ripping off masks in dramatic fashion. My son would come from PE and be having a hard time breathing,” said Bertalan.
“My kids want to breathe freely. They want to interact with friends and teachers,” said Carly Maritz, who has two children in the school district.
Newman says he's confident a mask option won't endanger safety.
Last year, Alpine Union was the first local school district to reopen for in-person learning in September. It was also the first to vaccinate staff. Newman says 99% of staff are now vaccinated.
“Local context is important. We've had strong protocols,” said Newman.
Newman points to new, hospital-grade ventilation systems in every school, electrostatic cleaning, and extensive contact tracing, which includes assigning bathrooms for each student. He says last school year, protocols led to zero cases of spread within schools. At the end of the past year, those protocols included three feet of social distancing.
“It won't be a mandate but if possible we'll put in spacing,” said Newman.
The other mandate district officials hope they won’t be seeing in schools is the mask mandate. The school year begins on Aug. 18. Newman says parents will have the option of remote learning.
On Thursday afternoon, when asked about Alpine Unified’s plans for mask-optional classes, a spokesperson for Governor Newsom told ABC 10News, “It is unequivocal. Local schools will have the discretion on how it’s enforced, but we do expect the mask mandate to be enforced.”
The spokesperson said local health departments will be charged with making sure the mask mandate is enforced. The response from state officials now sets up a potential standoff with Alpine Union School District.
“If there is any discretion for local schools, we will give parents and students the option not to wear masks,” said Newman.