On Monday, the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest K-12 system in the state of California and among the top 25 in the country, reimposed an indoor masking requirement on all students and staff, in response to increased COVID-19 infections in the surrounding community.
The re-masking was triggered automatically via a district decision this past May when San Diego County on Friday crossed the threshold deemed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to indicate a "high" level of community spread—above 200 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 7-day rolling average and above 10 percent of staffed hospital beds in use by COVID patients. The CDC's guidance for schools and child care facilities, which San Diego adheres to, is that "universal indoor mask use is recommended at a high COVID-19 Community Level."
According to CDC metrics as of Tuesday morning, 35 percent of U.S. counties had "high" community levels, 40 percent had "medium," and 25 percent "low." That does not mean 35 percent of school districts will go back to masking—far from it. According to the tracking site Burbio, school masking is banned statewide in Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and Utah, and as of July 18, face coverings were mandated in only 1.2 percent of districts nationwide.
But that number will surely grow with the BA.5 subvariant over the coming weeks, largely in the Democratic-controlled polities that have, since the onset of the pandemic, adopted the most restrictive school policies not just in the United States but among industrialized nations the world over. Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous, will impose a blanket indoor masking requirement on July 29 if the community level remains "high," officials said earlier this month. The University of California campuses in Los Angeles, Irvine, and Riverside have all brought back mandatory masks.
In a Monday interview with KUSI News that has gone semiviral, San Diego Unified Board President Sharon Whitehurst-Payne said that kids and parents who don't want to wear masks should the mandate remain in place in the fall "can go to our school that's online, they can opt not to return to the regular school, but to go to the school where they don't have to go to school at all other than via Zoom." As for mask-averse summer school kids presented with the brand new requirement, "They should just make it known that they don't feel comfortable and at that point just not return."
The no-big-deal, rules-are-rules, take-it-or-leave-it tenor of Whitehurst-Payne's comments are best experienced audiovisually:
"They can go to our school that's online. They can opt not to return to the regular school, but to go to the school where they don't have to go to school at all other than via Zoom."
— Anthony LaMesa (@ajlamesa) July 19, 2022
As fate would have it, San Diego schools were making national news just days after all eyes were on New York City, where the Department of Education (DOE) just projected yet another staggering drop in enrollment, projected at 30,000 more disappeared students from government-run schools this fall.
"We have a massive hemorrhaging of students—massive hemorrhaging," Mayor Eric Adams said last week. "We're in a very dangerous place in the number of students that we are dropping."
One of the dangers brought on by the ongoing public school defections is surely political—last week, 41 of the 51 members of the New York City Council signed a joint letter demanding that Adams restore the $215 million in DOE cuts in a 2022–23 budget that most of them had voted last month to approve. (New York, as in most school districts nationwide, has a funding formula tethered to enrollment; the $190 billion worth of federal-government pandemic bailouts to K-12 systems was able to paper over that shortfall for a while, but that source is winding down.)
It is a brazen play indeed for Democratic politicians and the teachers unions that help elect them to demand the same (or more) in taxpayer funding in return for providing a service that a decreasing number of taxpayers are willing to accept, even for free. But unions, in particular, have been willing throughout the pandemic to trade public affection for public money. The problem for them now is that they may be running out of both.
An annual Gallup poll released last week showed the second-lowest public confidence in the U.S. public school system—28 percent—in the survey's history, with trend lines shooting sharply downward. There have been record amounts of school-board recall activity, including the historic repudiation of three board members in San Francisco this past February. National polls have been showing the GOP erasing the longstanding gap vs. Democrats on the issue of education; even a poll commissioned by the heavily Democratic-leaning American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in seven battleground states showed the two parties running neck-and-neck.
As the union/Democratic-run districts and counties and states return to school masking, it's worth remembering that the very CDC guidelines on which they tether their policies have never included a single study that isolated the effectiveness of masks in school settings. This was true when the agency recommended universal school masking (all the way to February of this year), and it remained true after the CDC hastily announced a guidelines shift in the face of some blue-state governors abandoning their deference to the federal government's public health apparatus.
While the benefits of school masking, particularly at a time of widespread vaccination (which teachers enjoyed long before the rest of the population), have eluded quantification, the damages from the type of remote learning now recommended to holdouts by the SDUSD chief have been documented exhaustively. "The Biggest Disruption in the History of American Education," deemed professors Meira Levinson and Daniel Markovits in The Atlantic last month.
Unsurprisingly, the same big-city districts that have embraced these restrictions are the same ones to experience enrollment wipeouts. The America Enterprise Institute found in an April study that the districts with the most remote learning saw a two-year enrollment decline of 4.4 percent since COVID-19 hit, while the most open lost just 1.1 percent. Burbio that same month showed that in the 2021–22 school year, only the "big cities" category among the four main geographical designations continued to lose enrollment.
There are other factors leading to population shifts out of metropolitan areas altogether, including high housing costs, reduced immigration, and an increase in remote work. But it's hard to escape the conclusion proffered this week by Mary Katharine Ham at The Daily Beast: "Many parents learned for the first time in 2020 just what it looks like to be trapped in a failing public school. They also learned some leaders they thought were prioritizing their kids' educations were not."
Every video of a school bureaucrat treating remote learning as a trivial byproduct of necessary safety measures will create another enthusiast for school choice. It's been two and a half years, and the public education establishment still looks far from learning that lesson.