The Los Altos School District Board of Trustees issued an update on COVID-19 data at its meeting last week, painting a primarily positive picture that could lead to scrapping the outdoor mask mandate.

Between Aug. 1 and Nov. 10, LASD reported at least one COVID case at each of its nine schools, with the exception of Oak Avenue. Santa Rita had the most with five cases.

According to Superintendent Jeff Baier, the numbers are relatively low compared to Santa Clara County as a whole; the county currently has a seven-day rolling average of 177 new cases.

LASD continues pooled testing of staff and students with Concentric, a process that has experienced high participation, approaching 90% for the district’s seven elementary schools on average and approximately 65% for Blach Intermediate and Egan Junior High schools. From the pooled testing, LASD detected three positive cases and one indeterminate. No additional positives resulted from follow-up testing.

“Early detection and following the protocols from the California Department of Public Health are really helping to stop that spread,” Baier said at the Nov. 15 meeting.

All children ages 5 and up are now eligible for vaccination; only nine LASD transitional kindergartners who are not yet 5 years old are ineligible. A total of 96% of LASD staff members are vaccinated.

Masking outdoors

Given the high vaccination rates of LASD staff and junior high students, a sustained low case rate, well-established campus safety protocols and a well-enforced indoor mask policy, Baier urged trustees to consider lifting the district’s outdoor mask mandate.

Trevor Marshall, parent of an LASD third-grader, opposes the mask mandate for outdoor settings, arguing that the rate of transmission outdoors is significantly lower than indoors.

“It’s important for kids to stay in shape. … We want them exercising vigorously outdoors,” Marshall said during public comment at the meeting. “I used to live in Denmark, and they never masked their kids under 12, even indoors in school … also in Sweden and the U.K. and other states, and they haven’t had issues with kids getting horribly sick.”

Marshall expressed concern about the long-term effects of masking on children’s language and emotional development. He said his third-grade son struggles with enunciation, and he believes that kids need to see each other’s mouths to learn language.

Trustee Jessica Speiser said the board should begin to push for “strongly recommended” rather than mandated outdoor masking at the junior high schools, as junior highers are mostly vaccinated. She suggested eliminating the mandate after the upcoming Thanksgiving break.

“As for our elementary school students, they are not fully vaccinated yet,” Speiser added. “We’re starting to see them in school and get vaccinated, but it’s their first dose. I’d like us to (revisit the outdoor mask policy) when we have percentages similar to the junior high schools.”

Trustee Bryan Johnson agreed with Speiser, noting that local high schools do not mandate wearing masks outdoors, instead strongly recommending them.

“They have not had big outbreaks, and the high school is a lot denser than Blach and Egan,” Johnson said. “So, I think that science points that that’s still a reasonably safe recommendation. I defer a little bit to the junior high administration about when it would be least disruptive to make that change, but I think there’s no reason not to make it sooner than later.”

Johnson said he understands the concern for safety at the elementary schools, but he believes it would be safe to abolish the outdoor mask mandate, pointing out that students already eat lunch together outside unmasked, and that there has been no outdoor or indoor transmission within LASD schools.

Trustee Vladimir Ivanovic, however, warned of the possibility of an uptick in COVID cases when the winter months begin, referencing reports that some states are experiencing large increases in infection rates, even though they were considered leaders in fighting the virus earlier in the pandemic.

Although trustee Steve Taglio said he is comfortable with the idea of dropping the junior high mask mandate, he proposed a round of testing after the Thanksgiving break. If the number of positive cases matches the number of cases prior to the break, Taglio recommended moving to the California Department of Public Health’s guideline of only “strongly recommending” outdoor masking.

Board president Vaishali Sirkay supported removing the mask mandate not only for junior highers, but also for elementary schoolers.

The board ultimately agreed to Jan. 10 as the target date for lifting the mandate for the elementary schoolers. For junior highers, trustees agreed with Speiser’s suggestion to axe the mandate after the Thanksgiving break, allowing LASD time to prepare for testing and preventing a potential upward climb in cases within the elementary school population by observing how doing away with the outdoor mandate affects the junior-high population.

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Staff Writer

Angela Tam covers local schools as the Town Crier's education reporter.