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[Protests for Stronger COVID-19 Safety Protocols Outside Oakland Unified School District].

[Protests for Stronger COVID-19 Safety Protocols Outside Oakland Unified School District].

Photo: Noah Berger/Associated Press

[Oakland Unified School District, which, in addition to enforcing an indoor mask mandate, is also enforcing an outdoor mask mandate. The district says on its website the indoor mandate will remain until at least April 15, and a decision will be made on the duration of the outdoor mandate within two weeks.]

Some parents want the school board to accelerate the district’s timelines, given the fact that Oakland Unified’s neighboring districts — Piedmont Unified, Alameda Unified and Berkeley Unified — are all going mask-optional. Alameda County is currently in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “low” risk tier, meaning, per CDC guidance, “people may choose to mask at any time.”

“They’re essentially bucking federal, state and county guidance, saying, ‘We know better than all of you,'” said Megan Bacigalupi, a parent of two children at the district and founder of parent activist group CA Parent Power. “It’s saying there are conditions that persist in Oakland that require a child with speech impediments to be masked, but in Berkeley, that same child can be unmasked.”

SFGATE reached out to the Oakland Unified School District and asked why the district enforces an outdoor mask mandate given the limited risk of outdoor transmission, as well as why the district is taking an approach different from the one taken by neighboring districts. Alameda County’s current guidance states that masks can be optional in schools.

District spokesperson John Sasaki said he could not answer questions about the science behind an outdoor mask mandate or why OUSD is diverging from neighboring districts. He said the district is primarily keeping its mask mandate over concerns of a potential post-spring break surge. Spring break is scheduled for April 4 through 8.

“We don’t want to get rid of the mask mandate just yet and have to reinstate it if something goes wrong,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re consulting with our stakeholders that include available partners to figure out the best time to remove the mandate.”

The district’s teachers union — the Oakland Education Association — is likely one of the stakeholders Sasaki referenced. Los Angeles Unified is the largest school district in the state and is keeping its mask mandate indefinitely; it reportedly has a contract with the local teachers union to keep the mandate in place through the remainder of the school year. The Oakland Education Association did not respond to a request for comment from SFGATE.

“Parents are angry because it feels like kids are pawns in a greater labor dispute that has little to do with safety,” Bacigalupi said. “As far as the outdoor mask mandate goes, people are apoplectic about why that’s still in place.”

School board meetings have seen no shortage of parents seeking an end to the mask mandate, and one school board member also criticized the district’s decision to continue current policies.

“We should not be out of alignment with what the county or the state are saying in terms of health, safety and science,” District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson said at a recent meeting. “We’re not experts in those things.”

In addition to masking debates, the Oakland Unified School District has also recently been at the center of controversy over its decision to close or merge nearly a dozen schools. The closures would disproportionately affect Black students in low-income neighborhoods, and the decision prompted protests and hunger strikes.

Bacigalupi and other parents have asked the school board to convene a special meeting to consider overriding district officials on the mask mandate but they say they have been turned away to this point.

“I think a majority of the board agrees with our position on this,” she said. “Parents have been pushing the board, which can and should act.”

By Eric Ting