First published in the Feb. 19 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
After aligning with guidelines this week to allow people to go mask-less outdoors on school sites, Glendale Unified School District officials publicly cast hope that county and state officials will substantially curb other restrictions for children in classrooms.
Although the state has recently lifted its mandate on mask-wearing inside businesses and eateries, the mandate remains in place for a variety of indoor locations deemed high-risk, including K-12 schools, childcare settings and other youth-oriented places. (Los Angeles County regulations are, for now, keeping all indoor mask mandates in place.) State officials have indicated that they will provide an updated assessment specifically addressing “appropriate safety considerations” in schools.
Not a moment too soon, as some school board members would say.
“As we look out to Feb. 28, I hope that the state and county are going to really work to prioritize our schools,” school board president Shant Sahakian said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I think the frustration you heard in our parents’ voices today is frustration we all have as well.”
The board’s discussion on COVID-19 protocols and updates was preceded by a cacophony of public comments from parents who excoriated politicians and bureaucrats across the board for creating and enforcing policies to keep masks on schoolchildren while others selectively eschew it. Their emotions reached a zenith after the Super Bowl on Sunday, in which any goodwill from the Los Angeles Rams’ victory in their own stadium was evaporated by photo after photo of political leaders and celebrities losing their masks and embracing each other throughout the game.
L.A. County Supervisors Kathryn Barger, who represents Glendale, and Janice Hahn have publicly questioned the efficacy of continuing mandates, with Hahn tweeting on Tuesday that she believes “we are beginning to lose the trust of the people” especially after the flagrant violations at the Super Bowl.
“Keeping mandates in place that aren’t followed just erodes the credibility the public has in our ability to make good, sound decisions,” Hahn added in a follow-up tweet.
Although parents also targeted board members for their own recent public appearances — such as at Lunar New Year celebrations or at tours of the Armenian American Museum construction site — those officials too signaled a frustration with the continuing restrictions.
“It is frustrating when the public sees 70,000 people gather at a football game or any other event,” board member Armina Gharpetian said. “There may be some strict regulations there that we’re not aware of, but the majority there weren’t even wearing masks. As a parent and board member, I was completely frustrated.
“That night I was thinking, ‘Schools before Super Bowls,’” she added.
In defense against calls by parents to simply flout what the L.A. County Department of Public Health dictates, school officials said that following orders was the only realistic way of keeping schools open at all. Superintendent Vivian Ekchian also pointed out that the outdoor masking requirement was only implemented for the onset of the Omicron variant, which was notable for its substantially higher spread rate.
“I can assure you that every step of the way, we have looked at data and we have remained compliant with public health guidelines,” Ekchian said. “Sometimes, questions have come up as to what would happen if a school district didn’t. School districts and schools can be shut down for not being compliant with public health, just like restaurants can be shut down if they don’t follow public health guidelines.”
Data provided during Tuesday’s board meeting indicated that the COVID-19 testing positivity rate at GUSD testing clinics last week had fallen to 1.9%, after peaking at 10.8% on Jan. 10-14. Additionally, the county’s seven-day positivity rate had fallen to 3.5% last week, after peaking at 17.85% for the week ending Jan. 14.
Meanwhile, the district has distributed more than 28,000 home COVID-19 tests to students and employees for the long weekends observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lincoln’s Birthday and Presidents Day. Another round of these tests will be sent home ahead of spring break on the week of March 7.
“We are very quickly returning to those December numbers,” Kelly King, GUSD’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said. “You can see for our schools and our community, we are quickly going in the right direction.”
Board Clerk Nayiri Nahabedian added that in spite of the resounding rejection of restrictions that evening, she contended that there were just as many families out there hoping for mandates to continue while the coronavirus remains a threat to children younger than 5 who cannot yet be vaccinated.
“We are walking a fine line making decisions that keep us safer,” she said. “I am pleased that numbers are looking better and better all the time.”
Sahakian added that as much as he and the board have wanted a clear timeline on when things may happen, as well as clarity on priorities by health officials, they are often left wanting answers.
“We often don’t have that clear guidance from the state and the county, and it is deeply frustrating,” he said.
“I empathize with our families, our employees and most definitely with our students, because they have gone through quite an experience and it has had a major impact on their mental health and well-being. We as a school district are doing everything we can to support our students day in and day out. The frustration goes all around. I don’t think there’s a shortage of frustration.”