L.A. Unified to drop outdoor mask requirement next week

Starting next week, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will be able to remove their masks outdoors on campus for the first time since in-person schooling resumed 10 months ago.

Supt. Alberto Carvalho announced the decision Friday, a day after broadly hinting that the decision was coming “before the end of the week.”

“In alignment with the Department of Public Health and with guidance from our medical director and health partners, outdoor masking will be optional for all individuals in Los Angeles Unified schools effective Feb. 22,” Carvalho said in a statement posted on social media.

Because Monday is a holiday, the new policy is to take effect officially for students and staff on Tuesday. But those participating in athletics on Monday can unmask while outside, Carvalho said.

L.A. Unified has maintained some of the strictest COVID-19 safety protocols in the nation. Until the recent surge of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, outdoor masking had been dropped as a requirement for K-12 schools in Los Angeles County. But L.A. Unified was among the districts that continued that safety measure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parents eager to unmask their children have been critical of the nation’s second-largest school system for not acting immediately when unmasking outdoors became possible as of Wednesday. But on Thursday, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer defended school systems that opted to move more slowly.

“Obviously, this works best in places where students aren’t going to be outside in very crowded situations,” Ferrer said in a media briefing. “In some districts, that’s not possible.” Those districts will continue outdoor masking “until rates get even lower.”

“We will be behind those districts 100%,” she added.

Carvalho had the added challenge of navigating the views of his powerful seven-member school board and employee unions that have supported comprehensive safety measures, which have included outdoor and indoor masking and the weekly testing of all staff and students.

Nery Paiz, head of the district’s administrators union, said Thursday that he was prepared to trust Carvalho’s judgment on the matter.

Max Arias, who leads Local 99 of Service Employees Union International, which represents most non-teaching campus workers, said this week that it was important for unions to have a voice in the decision.

United Teachers Los Angeles — the most politically active labor group — has been notably silent, declining to publicly comment and focusing instead this week on urging members to vote on a package of negotiating priorities, which include salary increases, class-size reductions, fewer required student assessments and eliminating the school police.

L.A. school board member Scott Schmerelson, a consistent union ally, said Thursday that he was prepared to stand behind the superintendent’s decision on outdoor masking.

At Fair Avenue Elementary School in North Hollywood, second-grade teacher Maria Moran said she looked forward to the time when masks would no longer be required.

“It has helped,” she said. “No one got the flu this year, but I would rather not have [the mask] because I have a hard time — just it gets hot. And sometimes hearing students — it’s very hard.”

On Thursday, Moran had an oval of students on a carpet reading their responses to a writing prompt on ways they could be kind. When one student spoke about helping other students with math, it was indeed hard to make out what she was saying. Moran asked the students to speak more loudly.

Though Moran defers to authorities regarding when masks should come off inside, as far as outside goes: “I think we’re ready and the numbers look good.”

Carvalho, who served as superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools until accepting the L.A. job, comes from a different political environment. In Florida, state officials banned campus mask mandates — and other states have moved to ease them.

In California, an indoor masking mandate on campuses remains in force through at least Feb. 28. L.A. County is likely to keep the requirement in place longer based on its evaluation of local health conditions.

On Thursday, Ferrer estimated that the county’s sweeping indoor mask mandate could ease by late March, if current projections prove accurate.

L.A. Unified’s cautious overall approach to safety was defended Thursday by L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell in the county health department news briefing. She praised the work of all state school systems, but especially L.A. Unified, for a range of measures, including masking.

“Based on our actions here in L.A. County [and] in the state of California as a whole, our children were able to experience in-classroom instruction more than many states that didn’t take the same strategies we did,” Mitchell said. “LAUSD did a yeoman’s job, as well as many of the other school districts.”

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