The Desert Sands Unified School District will lift its indoor mask mandate in schools and on school buses for students and staff on Saturday, March 12.
The Board of Trustees voted 5-0 on Tuesday to update the district's indoor mask policy at a special meeting convened one day after the governors of California, Oregon and Washington announced they would end indoor mask requirements for schoolchildren — regardless of vaccination status — on March 12.
California, however, maintained a "strong recommendation" for the continued use of masks in schools as an effective way to continue to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
"I don't know what's magical about March 11," said Trustee Wendy Jonathan (Palm Desert), expressing her frustration with what she considers to be the government's inconsistent selection of criteria for managing COVID-19 safety protocols in schools.
"I just wanted to go on the record that it's really ludicrous to say that something happens in our air, in our classrooms, in our schools, and now everything's okay," Jonathan said.
Jonathan told The Desert Sun on Wednesday that she would rather see school mask requirements lifted immediately.
Jonathan said at a board meeting last fall that she would oppose COVID-19 vaccine mandates in schools.
For months, community members have shown up to board meetings to loudly protest the district's adherence to public health guidance on COVID-19, and some have supported a petition to recall board members for that reason.
Trustee Tricia Pearce responded to Jonathan by saying she doesn't think something magical will happen on March 11. Rather, the district has always followed state COVID-19 guidelines, and it will continue to do so. Her statement was seconded by newly appointed trustee Jacob Alvarez.
At one point in January during the omicron variant surge, the district, which serves about 24,000 students with 2,800 employees, reported more than 2,000 active COVID-19 cases.
As of Tuesday, the district reported 53 active cases of COVID-19 — 46 among students and seven among staff.
"We stand in solidarity with the district and the decisions that are made in the health and safety guidelines for our staff and students," said Desert Sands Teachers Association President Trina Gonzales-Alesi.
However, one community member who identified themself as a DSUSD staff member wrote an online public comment read aloud by the board on Tuesday to express concern about the end of the mask mandate.
"I am terrified of January 2022 reoccurring again," the staff member wrote. "I can't handle the burden of being asked to cover my colleagues' classes because they were out sick anymore or have to keep in touch with 50 students constantly on what they are missing. I'm still recovering from lost prep time. We need to protect our vulnerable and immunocompromised students and staff."
Unvaccinated Desert Sands employees still need to submit to weekly testing, according to Gonzales-Alesi.
What are other valley districts planning for masks?
Palm Springs Unified School District spokesperson Joan Boiko said that the district will "continue to follow state and county guidelines as we have since the beginning of the pandemic."
Boiko did not clarify whether that statement means PSUSD will lift the mask mandate on the same day as Desert Sands Unified or later.
A spokesperson for the Coachella Valley Unified School District did not respond to The Desert Sun on Tuesday to say whether their district will change its mask protocol, as well.
PSUSD is reporting 29 active COVID-19 cases (28 students, one staff), and CVUSD is reporting 23 (15 students, eight staff).
The Coachella Valley Unified's staff vaccine mandate is stronger than the current statewide mandate for school employees, which requires school staff be either fully vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.
Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Writes_Jonathan.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: DSUSD to lift school mask mandate; board recall efforts continue