EDUCATION: COVID Outbreak at Pacific Elementary prompts new outdoor mask requirement

Students wear masks, outside, before the first day of school at Mira Costa High School. Photo by JP Cordero

by Mark McDermott 

Eight students and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19 last week at Pacific Elementary, an outbreak that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health responded to with a specific health order requiring that masks be worn throughout the campus, even outdoors. 

John Bowes, superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, announced last Friday that after consultation with DPH investigators, masks would be required both inside and outdoors at all MBUSD campuses until further notice. The new requirement was implemented September 6. 

Bowes, in a newsletter to the community, also said that three classrooms of students who have been linked to the outbreak have all been placed under quarantine. 

“Given the number of positive cases and close contacts among our fifth grade classrooms, because fifth grade students had been interacting without masks outdoors during lunch and recess, and because COVID vaccinations are not yet available for students younger than 12 years old, out of an abundance of caution, MBUSD placed Pacific’s three fifth grade classrooms on [home] quarantine,” Bowes said. 

State and county protocols only require masks indoors. In an interview, Bowes said the district-wide requirement for masks outdoors, which was briefly discussed at the September 1 board meeting, was implemented with the aftereffects of the Labor Day weekend in mind. 

“Out of an abundance of caution due to increasing numbers of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 in MBUSD, and to be best prepared for any possible post-Labor Day surge, the district will temporarily require all students and staff to wear masks indoors and outdoors at all times when on any district campus or district facility, except to remove them momentarily when eating or drinking, unless they are able to maintain six feet physical distance from all others,” Bowes said. 

Bowes said the District would continue to monitor “the fluid nature” of the Delta variant and reassess this short-term protocol in the weeks after Labor Day, all with keeping in-person instruction as a paramount concern. 

At last week’s board meeting, both student representatives, Ben Gneiser and Natalie Lynch, expressed support for the more comprehensive masking requirement. Both are Mira Costa students, where most students are vaccinated, but said students during the first week of school were mostly all wearing masks throughout campus, anyway. 

“I’m vaccinated and I still wear my mask outside,” Gneiser said. “I’ve seen a majority, actually, of students wearing masks outside. I think students are really realizing how important it is, and we do not want to enter a period again where distance learning is the mode that we take for the rest of the year. People really realize how difficult being away from school was, and just by being back in school these last six days, I really do think that the students are willing to wear masks. I see very few students having a problem with it.” 

“I think everyone wants to be in school, now, in-person,” Lynch said. “And I think everyone is willing to wear their masks.” 

Bowes said he and his administrative team have seen widespread voluntary use of masks outdoors on campuses. 

“We’re seeing more and more students wearing masks outdoors, at their election,” he said. “And you will see our school leaders wearing masks outdoors to set a good example. It’s important that kids know it’s okay to wear a mask.” 

Public comment at the board meeting, which occurred two days before the outdoor masking requirement was announced, centered mostly on the issue of masks. Parents argued both for and against all mask requirements. 

Tiffany Wright, the founder of Kids Need Classrooms, said that MBUSD kept its classrooms closed too long and is now in danger of making the mistake of harming children further with mask requirements. 

“It was clearly a mistake that we kept classrooms closed as long as we did last year,” Wright said. “The data is out, and we’re glad that we’re all now on the same page. Why continue the same mistakes that hinder children’s ability to communicate, socialize and learn with mask mandates? It’s time we put our students first. That’s why I’m here today. Kids Need Classrooms requests that the board advocate for mass choice. We agree with the British government and in many other countries and states that the potential harms of masking young children in school exceed the potential benefits. National and international studies show that infection rates for schools without mask mandates are no greater than schools with mask mandates.” 

Parent Jen Dohner argued for masks. She said the example of Britain not requiring masks among school children was misleading. 

“It’s true that Britain didn’t make kids mask in school during their Delta surge last spring,” she said. “But it’s also true that the daily infection rate in young patients rose twentyfold, from 600 to 12,000, resulting in more than a million students in quarantine from school. It’s not true that mask use does not reduce transmission in schools. Just this May the CDC study in Georgia showed 37 percent lower COVID incidence in schools with mask requirements.” 

Dr. William Kim, the chief medical officer for the Beach Cities Health District, said science supports the efficacy of masks to stop the transmission of COVID-19. He said an observational study by the University of Texas showed that what type of mask used really matters.  

“The type of mask makes a big difference,” Kim said in an interview. “These cloth masks are thought to be not all that effective in preventing disease.

N5 respirators, which all of us are using in the medical profession, are extremely effective at preventing transmission, as well as infection. And then, the next group of masks below that are those disposable surgical masks, usually blue, that everybody’s gotten used to seeing —  they are fairly effective as well. But viral particles and respiratory droplets are going to get around those masks. I think masking when used with other measures, such as social distancing is an effective way to help prevent infection. It’s not going to stop it. But really, vaccination, as well as the masks and social distancing, is what will stop it.” 

Children under 12 are expected to be eligible for vaccination by year’s end, depending on how soon testing can prove its safety. 

Los Angeles County has seen a drastic uptick in COVID-19 cases since mid-August. LA Unified reported 3,255 COVID-19 cases among students as baseline data on its first day of school, August 17. According to DPH, between August 14 and August 21, the case rate increased 50 percent among children 5 to 11, while the rate increased 13 percent in newborns to 4 years old, and 24 percent in children 12 to 17 years old. Among the 12 to 17-year-olds, who are eligible for vaccine, unvaccinated teens had an 8 times the risk of infection than those teens vaccinated, with 480 cases among every 100,000 unvaccinated children in this age group compared with 57 cases among 100,000 of those vaccinated. 

Kim also cautioned that, although symptoms tend to be less severe in children, the long-term impacts are still not well known. 

“There’s still really no good observational data on the long term impacts of COVID on children,” he said. “We do know that there are some long term, detrimental impacts on adults when they get this, but we’re not sure how it’s really going to affect the kids in the long run. So it behooves us to still be very careful, and try to protect our most valuable population, which is our children. Not only that, but as we see these infections continue, it gives the opportunity for the virus to once again mutate and then if I get around some of our efforts to control it.” 

At the meeting, board member Kathey Graves cautioned that the district should not get ahead of the science on mask requirements, specifically regarding their use outside. 

“I’ve watched a number of students walking home from school at the end of the day, and they still have their masks on,” Graves said. “I think we need to be careful. We’re not scientists. The LA County Department of Public Health has scientists, and there have been a number of studies done, and at this point, they are just recommending indoor masks. I think it’s just important to follow the science.” ER 

 

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