HOLTVILLE — The Board of Holtville Unified School District (HUSD) voted 4-1 to not enforce California’s mask mandate at its regular meeting Thursday, August 12.
This comes after Imperial County Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday reminded the community in a joint press conference with Pioneers Memorial Hospital and El Centro Regional Medical Center that Imperial County schools do not have the authority to opt-out of the mask mandate.
The Imperial County Health Officer issued a universal indoor masking order, requiring the use of face coverings regardless of vaccine status. The goal of the order is to protect the community and local healthcare system from a major resurgence of COVID-19 cases and to allow businesses and services in Imperial County to remain open, according to the ICPHD statement.
Under the new order, Imperial County residents and visitors are required to wear face coverings in all indoor public settings, venues, gatherings, and workplaces, such as but not limited to offices, retail stores, restaurants and bars, theaters, family entertainment centers, conference centers, and government offices.
The order is in addition to the state health officer order that requires face coverings for all individuals in public transit, indoor K-12 schools, childcare settings, emergency shelters, cooling centers, healthcare settings, correctional facilities and detention centers, and homeless shelters, and also requires face coverings for all unvaccinated individuals in any indoor public settings. The local health officer order goes into effect Wednesday, August 18, at 12 a.m. The full health officer order is available on the ICPHD website.
“On Thursday, August 12, 2021, the Holtville Unified School District issued a directive to the Superintendent by a 4-1 majority vote that, 1. HUSD recognizes the mask mandate issued by the State of California; 2. HUSD recognizes that the State of California has not provided guidance on the enforcement of the mandate; and 3. Violation of the mask mandate shall not be a basis for punishment for HUSD students. In addition, no HUSD student wearing a mask shall be punished, harassed, or discriminated against,” said the HUSD Board in a letter to families and staff.
Holtville Unified School District will return for full-time and in-person instruction on August 23, and said they expect all students to return to campus but will offer an online independent study program for those who do not wish to attend in-person education.
“The Independent Study Program will be offered for students who are independent learners and requires parent involvement,” said the HUSD.
The HUSD said it will continue to promote handwashing and good hygiene as well as cleaning and sanitation protocols and limited physical distancing. The District also said screening protocols include a simplified COVID-19 symptoms questionnaire that will be given daily to students and staff. The District’s superintendent was reached for comment on the development but response was not received by press time.
Munday reiterated at the press conference that the Imperial County Public Health Department is not an enforcement agency, and that compliance is in the hands of the school districts.
Director of the Imperial County Public Health Department Janette Angulo released a statement late Monday evening in response to the schools’ actions.
“The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) sets minimum standards for recommended and required guidance related to the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 in California schools. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that all students are safe, CDPH continues to require that masks be worn by all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status. Limited exemptions to the mandate are provided in CDPH’s guidance for the use of face coverings,” said Angulo.
According to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), about 15 percent of the population remains without the option for vaccination as children under 12 years old are not yet eligible. However, Dr. Munday said a vaccine for those aged 12 and under is currently underway. He could not give a specific timeline as to when the vaccine may become available, but he anticipates the new vaccine at some point.
The CDPH also states masks are one of the most effective safety mitigation layers to prevent in-school transmission of COVID. It states the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend universal indoor masking for K-12 schools.
The CDC noted: "CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place."
As of July 22, 2021, less than 40 percent of Californians 12-to-17 years old were fully vaccinated.
CDPH states, “Requiring universal masking indoors in K-12 schools also takes into account a number of other key considerations: operational barriers of tracking vaccination status in order to monitor and enforce mask wearing; the potential for increased transmission due to circulating variants; and potential detrimental effects on students of differential mask policies, which include: potential stigma, bullying, and isolation of vaccinated OR unvaccinated students, depending on the culture and attitudes in the school or surrounding community.”
CDPH stated it will continue to assess conditions on an ongoing basis, and will determine whether to update mask requirements or recommendations by November 1, 2021.