August 2021

With Santa Cruz County’s School Superintendent Faris Sabbah

by brad kava

1. Will our schools follow the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines regarding masks being worn indoors by all K-12th graders. Do the individual districts have a choice of following them or not? If so, why did you choose to go the way you are going?

CDPH guidance is clear: All students and adults in schools in Santa Cruz County (public and private) must mask indoors. Districts don’t have the leeway to decide for themselves to ignore the guidance from CDPH. The CDPH has also said it expects to reevaluate the masking requirement by Nov. 1 — so it is possible the policy could change in the months ahead depending on factors such as vaccination and COVID-19 case rates. We can do our part by ensuring all eligible students ages 12 and up are vaccinated by the start of the school year.

2. Have you heard from the very politicized anti-maskers and what’s been your response to them? (I heard a two-hour-long radio show yesterday where they are loading up to take on the district legally and they claim to have had success in other districts relaxing mask requirements.)

I have had the opportunity to engage in person, via email, over the phone, and at board meetings with parents and community members who are vehemently against the use of masks.  They have shared their point of view that masks and vaccines offer little to no protection, and are harmful to children. Their claims are not supported by the general scientific community, and by local epidemiologists that I work with directly. We must continue to do our part to protect our students and community from the increasingly contagious Delta variant and adhere to CDPH guidance.

3. What will you do to or for kids who refuse to wear masks?

CDPH requires us to offer students masks to wear if they arrive to school without a mask. If students choose not to wear their mask indoors, I anticipate schools will contact parents/guardians to ask their support for their child to wear a mask. Parents/guardians will be notified that students must wear a mask indoors or they will be assigned an independent study program. If students have a medical condition that prohibits their ability to wear a mask, parents/guardians will be notified that they can work with their doctor to complete a medical exemption in compliance with CDPH guidance.

4. Will there be health exceptions for those who claim they can’t wear masks? How will you verify the claims?

In accordance with CDPH guidance, parents/guardians of students with certain medical conditions can work with their medical providers to request a medical exemption. Those medical providers will need to be licensed in California and be in good standing. According to CDPH, students whose exemption is approved must wear a non-restrictive alternative, such as a face shield with a drape on the bottom edge, as long as their condition permits it.

5. Looking back over the past year, do you think distance learning can be as effective as in-person? Are there positive things about it? Is it something that may be used in the future mix of education?

Distance learning worked for some students but not all. For some students it was quite effective. It was a reminder that education cannot be “one size fits all.” But it is true that exploring these kinds of different modalities has been a silver lining of the pandemic, and I do think you will see some of the approaches honed over the past year continue to impact education moving forward. We’re also required to offer independent study to families as an option this school year for families who opt in, so we’re continuing to see remote learning play a role.

6. Some educators recommend having students repeat the year they missed in person. Is that even possible and if it is, would you think it’s a good idea?

New state legislation, AB 104, requires schools to offer a consultation with a parent requesting that their student be retained in grade in the 2021-22 academic year. In general, the research shows that retaining students is counter-productive and increases the likelihood that they not make it to high school graduation.

7. Can the district or the state require private schools to follow the same guidelines?

Yes. The CDPH mask requirement is a public health directive, so it applies to both public and private schools.

8. The guidelines say masks don’t have to be worn outdoors. What about indoor activities in the gym, such as volleyball, basketball, wrestling? What about in cafeterias?

We are still waiting for updated guidance on school sports. In terms of cafeterias, Schools are encouraged to set up food services outdoors. But if students need to eat indoors, they can of course remove their masks, and schools are encouraged to increase distancing between them while they do so.

9. Will there be dress codes for masks? What are the limits of free expression in the mask designs? Would profanity be banned?

As with all clothing, students have the right to express themselves as long they conform with district and school policies. These policies are generally in place to ensure that student expression is not disruptive or creating an unsafe environment. Profanity is disruptive and is not allowed in schools.

10. What are some of your new goals, unrelated to the pandemic, for the coming school year?

We hope to help our schools increase and integrate mental health services so that all students who need them get services quickly and effectively. We hope to help ensure that all schools navigate the requirements for, among others, Independent Studies, universal transitional kindergarten, ethnic studies, career technical education, addressing the digital divide, teacher recruitment, and additional resources for special education. We’ll continue to create safer school environments so that all students — regardless of race, ethnicity, LGBTQ identity, or ZIP code — can achieve and thrive.

What public official would you like us to question? Send your nominations and questions to [email protected]

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