Pack your masks: back-to-school season begins for Los Alamitos Unified District

Photo by Jeannette Andruss. After more than a year of instruction impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Weaver are the first in the Los Alamitos Unified School District to start the 2021-22 academic year with full-time in-person instruction.

You could feel the excitement in the air at Jack L. Weaver Elementary school last Wednesday.

Students, parents, teachers and staff filled the Rossmoor campus, exuding an energy that matched the sunshine of the summer morning.

“Happy first day!” staff said as they greeted families entering campus.

“Hallelujah!” one mother rejoiced, throwing her arms into the air.

After more than a year of instruction impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Weaver are the first in the Los Alamitos Unified School District to start the 2021-22 academic year with full-time in-person instruction. Students return to LAUSD’s other eight campuses August 16.

“We are so excited that we are going back full-time,” said parent Dalis La moments after snapping a picture of her two daughters in front a giant welcome back sign set up on Weaver’s campus. “It was very stressful when we had to be in the hybrid [format],” La said.

Last academic year, students in the hybrid format were on campus for a just a few hours a day. While it was a precaution taken to limit class size due to the pandemic, it also upended parents’ work schedules and childcare arrangements. Other students were enrolled in an all-virtual learning option known as LosAl@Home.

But this year, LAUSD is offering its roughly 10,000 students a more traditional school experience — a full-day of in-person learning on campus complete with lunch and recess.

Masks mandatory indoors on campus

The school year is starting at a time when COVID-19 cases are increasing in Orange County, mostly among unvaccinated people and fueled by the more transmissible Delta variant. Vaccines are proving effective at preventing severe illness, but children 12 and younger are still ineligible for the shot.

It’s in this climate that health and education officials are trying to achieve their top priority of in-person instruction for all students while keeping them healthy and safe.

The California Department of Public Health is mandating all students and teachers at K-12 schools wear masks inside classrooms, regardless of their vaccination status. It’s a move backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC stresses the importance of universal masking indoors as one of the most effective layers of protection against transmission of COVID-19, especially when students cannot be distanced at least three feet apart, which is the case in most LAUSD schools.

At the July 20 LAUSD Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver expressed concern about how mask wearing might impact students’ ability to communicate and their mental health. His suggestion was for masks to be optional unless there was a COVID outbreak.

But he also stressed that the decision on masks was not his or Board members’ to make and that LAUSD would adhere to the state’s rules.

“We are grateful for your understanding that our school board and district administration are not permitted to lessen the mandated requirements we are under from the CDPH,” Dr. Pulver wrote in a July 21 email to LAUSD families.

On August 4, students and teachers were masked up as they walked into Weaver’s classrooms.

“I am pretty impressed. I like the precautions,” Magda, a mother of two Weaver students, said after dropping off her children for their first day of school.

While Magda is in favor of the precautions, not every California parent agrees with her.

Last month, parent groups Let Them Breathe and Reopen California Schools filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the mask mandate claiming it is “harmful to students.”

Let Them Breathe is also organizing “School Board Meeting Rallies” across Southern California, including in Orange County, according to its Instagram account, which has more than 12,000 followers.

Last week, the Orange County Board of Education also voted to sue Governor Gavin Newsom over the mask mandate lead by OCBE President and Rossmoor resident Mari Barke.

The move puts the board at odds with the Orange County Department of Education and the Orange County Health Care Agency which issued a joint statement on July 16 saying all local school districts must follow the state’s mask mandate.

Still, a few districts in Orange County, including Saddleback Valley Unified, have passed resolutions asking the state to make masks optional for students.

LAUSD Board of Education President Marlys Davidson said she felt “a crush of disappointment for our children and our community” when the mask mandate for K-12 schools came down.

“The optimist in me so desperately wanted to completely put the past year and a half behind us and open to a truly traditional school setting where students return to see the welcoming smiles of teachers, staff and peers. However, with the surge of the Delta variant and the recent statewide mandate for masks on campuses, we will need to find other ways to connect with one another,” Davidson wrote in an email this week.

Davidson shared that she’s heard from community members in support of and opposition to the mask mandate and said it’s been about 50/50. “Both sides are very passionate about their perspectives and I value what they share. Their messages come from their love for their children and what they believe is best from their points of view. Ultimately, we plan to follow the state mandates,” she wrote.

Davidson expressed gratitude to staff, parents, students and the community for standing together even as they acknowledge differences.

“As we welcome our students back to school, may we be aware of the hidden tolls this pandemic has taken on all of us. We encourage our students, families, and staff to ask for support when it is needed. We must continue to do this together.”

For more local education news, follow Jeannette Andruss on Twitter @NetteAndruss.