SACRAMENTO — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing sudden backlash over his student mask rules, the latest sign that the recall-threatened leader must tread lightly as schools prepare to open next month.
Students will return to classrooms just as recall ballots land in mailboxes across the state, and Newsom has to strike the right tone with parents and voters after a tumultuous stretch marked by some of the nation’s longest school closures. The governor has built momentum this summer, making his ouster a long shot, but schools remain a sensitive political topic in California.
Republicans seized this week on Newsom’s requirement that all schoolchildren wear masks, alleging that he was ignoring science by requiring even vaccinated students to wear face coverings, a step further than the federal recommendations. A top GOP candidate, Kevin Faulconer, attacked the governor twice over the issue, calling his policy “cruel and an insult to students and teachers who lost a whole year of school under Newsom.”
The Democratic governor said his mask rules were intended to ensure school officials could open full-time for the first time since the pandemic began. But for critics, the new rules were distilled into one authoritarian takeaway: all students must mask up or else.
“You can’t win with this pandemic. There’s no way you can do anything that’s not going to get pushback,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of epidemiology at Stanford University and the chair of the committee on infectious disease for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
California isn’t the only place to impose an across-the-board mask requirement for schoolchildren; so far, New York City schools, the largest district in the country, announced the same. But California is the only one with a gubernatorial recall, putting Newsom and his policies under a daily microscope.
The state also had one of the nation’s longest school closures, which tested Democratic loyalties to teachers unions and led some parents to flee public schools. Frustrated parents regularly blamed Newsom and state lawmakers for letting local districts and employee unions decide when students should return.
Sacramento leaders have insisted that K-12 schools must reopen full time this upcoming academic year, but that may be easier said than done. With only a month until many districts return, Newsom and health officials are still sorting through the logistics in an environment where the Delta variant is spreading and elementary school-age students are still ineligible for vaccines.
Newsom’s team on Monday released new details regarding the state’s requirement for all teachers and students to wear masks in the fall regardless of vaccination status. The rules differ from the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which only requires masks for unvaccinated individuals. At the same time, the California guidance drops a federal directive to maintain social distancing — a tradeoff state officials said was necessary in order to accommodate students full-time.
But one line in the guidance set off a flurry of concern from parents and school officials alike. It said that schools “must exclude” students from campus if they refuse to wear a mask and are not exempt for medical reasons.
California Department of Public Health inboxes were immediately flooded with concerns about what will happen to a student who refuses to wear a mask and how the state plans to ensure that districts will enforce such a mandate.
“Today kind of went off the rails,” said Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, Tuesday. “Now we spend so much time trying to clarify and ensure that the message is out there effectively.”
While some outraged parents are taking responsibility for the recall momentum, it’s not clear that education issues alone will move the electorate. The governor has still received positive marks for his handling of the pandemic and schools, and his backers note that a significant number of families — particularly in communities of color — did not want their children returning the school. Any education policy has proven to be a balancing act, and what’s oppressive to one family may feel like a necessity to another.
For now, every move will be viewed through the recall prism.
“Almost no matter what the governor does now, he will be accused of doing it based on his political fortunes,” said Kimberly Nalder, executive director of CalSpeaks, which conducts public policy surveys out of California State University, Sacramento. “Early in the pandemic, he was accused of being too nuanced, and that the guidelines weren’t as clear. In this case, it’s at least more straightforward. I just don’t think there’s a way to win this politically.”
The Newsom administration responded to frustration this week by tweeting that local school districts would decide how to enforce the mask policy. It was an attempt to soften the language that bluntly barred students from classrooms, signaling how sensitive the governor’s office is to criticism over schools at the moment.
But the tweet was seen as a backtrack, even though Newsom health officials say they were only explaining the policy in place.
“This mask rollout was done poorly by the state, causing more confusion and debate just at a time when we are so excited to open our doors fully for our families and students,” said Scott Blough, a school board trustee for Simi Valley Unified and a registered Republican. “The issue I’m running into is public health tripping over themselves and making it difficult to implement and gain support from our stakeholders.”
Newsom education adviser Ben Chida referenced “the cultural and political disputes that arise” in a statement explaining what the governor tried to accomplish with the mask rules. Chida suggested Newsom was trying to set a statewide standard that would relieve districts from local pressure. And he said the state requirement was intended to make implementation easier.
Sacramento-based education lobbyist Kevin Gordon said he was fielding calls this week from superintendents who thought the state had reversed the mask mandate entirely.
“There were probably easier paths that avoided a mandate. He didn’t have to go down this road,” Gordon said of Newsom. “This has actually been very welcomed by some districts because it solves the bigger problem of social distancing, which schools knew they did not have the space for.”
Still, Newsom’s latest rules drew criticism from parents who don’t want any students in masks, including a “Let Them Breathe” movement out of San Diego, and from those who feared the rules would complicate things for schools that they thought should have opened months ago.
Open Schools CA, a parent group that has pushed Newsom to mandate in-person instruction, said the universal mask mandate ignores evidence that Covid-19 transmission in schools is unlikely and disregards California’s low virus rates.
“A return to as normal a school year as possible is crucial to the mental health recovery for students across California who endured months of isolation and a majority who spent last school year entirely in distance learning,” the group said in a statement. “Continued mask mandates for vaccinated individuals undermines confidence in our highly effective COVID vaccines and may increase vaccine hesitancy, as the benefits from vaccination become less clear.”
Republicans pounced on the mask miscommunication as a sign of Newsom’s mishandling of the pandemic and alleged that the governor had backtracked on the rules to save face.
“I guess we know how the mask mandate, which contradicts CDC guidance as to vaccinated children, was polling,” Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican national committeewoman from California, said on Twitter.
Maldonado, the Stanford epidemiology professor, said Newsom’s mask policy makes sense. But the outrage was to be expected — and the problem is bigger than California.
“When I saw this, I thought, ‘Oh, this is the classic fractured way we do health care in this country.’ It’s been shown time and time again in this pandemic that the federal government doesn’t really have any control over anything, really,” she said.
Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco who has become a leading voice during the pandemic, said it would have been better to require masks in schools only when local Covid-19 cases reach a certain number because that approach relies on science and provides more transparency behind the rationale.
Under the current plan, there’s no “off ramp” in place for how the mask mandate should change if case rates hit significantly low numbers, she said.
“It really backfired,” Gandhi said of the plan. “I just feel like they are creating a lot of confusion with this, and people are really angry and upset and concerned.”
But Gandhi praised Newsom for pushing in-person instruction and taking steps to get there after prolonged distance learning.
“Whatever they do with masks, for me the most significant and substantial thing out of this is a commitment to in-person learning,” she said. “I really don’t want people to lose perspective of that.”
Victoria Colliver contributed to this report.