On Tuesday, a coalition of Sonoma County medical professionals, parents, teachers and students called for an extension of local mask mandates in order to protect residents hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The forum, which centered the experience of the county’s Latinx and immigrant communities, came in response to the state’s decision roll back many pandemic restrictions as part of the state’s new “endemic” strategy.
In late February, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state would no longer require schools and child care facilities to require masks. In the absence of a statewide requirement, local school districts may independently decide to keep mask mandates in place. In Sonoma County, that means 40 separate school boards will decide whether or not to require students and staff to wear masks after the state requirement lapses on Friday, March 11.
Speakers at the Tuesday forum argued that extending mask mandates for a few weeks or through the end of the school year would help control case loads, protecting school employees, students and the larger community, especially those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
For instance, while Latinx residents make up 23.7% of the county’s population, they have suffered 50% of documented Covid cases, 40% of hospitalizations and 31% of deaths, according to county data.
“[Sonoma] County has made a verbal commitment to address inequity, and this is one critical time to put that commitment into action by keeping the school mask mandate in place until we ensure equitable access to the tools we know keep people safe: rapid tests, high-quality masks, education about new paid sick leave laws,” Dr. Jenny Fish, one of the organizers of the forum, said in a press release last week. “Omicron is still with us, and it is still having a disproportionate impact on our Latinx and immigrant community.”
“There are already not enough teachers in our schools, so taking away masks will put them at risk as well as our children, especially those with health problems or disabilities. Our children can wear masks for a little longer to protect themselves, and our community,” added Irma Garcia, an immigrant community member, mother of two and board president of the North Bay Organizing Project.
Organizers of the forum included H-PEACE, the CURA Project, and Latino Service Providers. Members of Movimiento Cultural de la Union Indigena, Las Luchadoras, Roseland CBI, ALMAS, Mujeres Unidas, La Familia Sana, Sonoma Valley Food For All and the North Bay Organizing Project’s Immigrant Defense Task Force also participated in the event.
Parents speaking at the forum voiced concern that many children are still not vaccinated, making outbreaks at school more likely.
According to county data, only 39% of children aged 5-11 have been fully vaccinated, compared to 81% of Sonoma County’s overall population. Children under five are still not allowed to receive the vaccine.
Sonoma County school-aged residents 17 years old and younger have accounted 22% of cases throughout the pandemic and 25% of cases in the past 60 days, according to the county’s data dashboard.
Local public officials who attended the virtual forum expressed sympathy in response to the testimonies shared at the event, but indicated that decisions about mask mandates will be left to the county’s school districts.
“I understand where you’re coming from. This is a really scary prospect for a lot of people and I really welcome everything that you’ve said,” Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, said during a public comment portion of the forum.
Mase added the county’s recent health order dropping mask mandates in most public spaces for vaccinated individuals “does not mean in any way that we don’t think that masking is one of the most important things for our community, to protect our kids, to protect everybody… from Covid.”
In a Feb. 9 statement announcing the upcoming health order, county officials “strongly recommended masks be used as an effective tool to prevent the spread of the virus especially when case rates are high, or when additional personal protection is needed.” (In a Feb. 15 open letter to county officials, Sonoma County healthcare workers and community organizers urged the county to extend broader mask mandates “a few more weeks until the end of the current Omicron surge.” The county did not do so.)
At the March 8 forum, Mase urged attendees to “Please take your message to school districts, because they’re making the decisions for us about the masking of kids.”
Reaching out to school districts will be a time-consuming affair for parents looking to offer their opinion on masking. Sonoma County, which has a population of just shy of half a million residents, has 40 school districts. That’s nine more than the 31 districts serving New York City, a metropolis with a population of 8.4 million.
Judging from a recent Press Democrat article polling 18 local school districts, some districts have already decided to drop the mandates as early as next week.
The county’s largest school district, Santa Rosa City Schools, has not yet made a decision. The district’s Board of Education will discuss extending the school mask mandates and other matters at a meeting tonight.