California high school students stage walkout over district’s mask mandate

Hundreds of students at a northern California high school walked out of class Tuesday afternoon to protest their district’s mask mandate that has been kept in place despite a statewide loosening of restrictions.

Photos and a video shared with Fox News show a throng of maskless students assembled outside Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, California.

Jennifer Yoder, an Oak Ridge parent and an administrator of the Facebook page "Eldorado Hills Republicans," told Fox News that she and other parents sent their kids to school without masks. 

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"This was a homegrown thing between the parents and then the kids working together to get everyone on board," Yoder told Fox News. She said the kids who arrived maskless to class were dismissed. 

"It just kept growing and growing. And then they eventually just got up and left those classrooms and ran outside and started their protest," Yoder said.  

Later Tuesday, the El Dorado Union High School District sent out a letter notifying parents that it would be changing its masking enforcement protocols.

"The enforcement of masking will be done by educating students and asking them to mask but no further actions of exclusion from class will be taken," the district said. "Moving forward students will not be physically removed from the classroom or receive a discipline consequence to prevent further exclusionary learning loss." 

The district, which could not be reached for further clarification, said in its letter that it was bound by policy set by Sacramento and the California Department of Public Health. 

Tuesday’s mass walkout came a day after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom delayed a closely watched decision on lifting California's school mask mandate, even as other Democratic governors around the country have dropped them in recent weeks.

While many Californians will be able to remove masks in most indoor settings starting Tuesday, schoolchildren and teachers will have to wait. Newsom had flagged Monday as the day to watch for a revision regarding schools, then sent the state's top health official to deliver the message of a delay.

"The message today, which I hope is clear, is today a change isn't being made," California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in an online announcement. Ghaly said his department will reassess on Feb. 28 whether the rule should change.

Meanwhile, California has begun lifting its mask mandate for most indoor settings for vaccinated people. As of Tuesday, unvaccinated people will still be required to wear masks indoors, and everyone — vaccinated or not — will have to wear masks in higher-risk settings like public transit and nursing homes. Local governments can continue their own indoor mask requirements.

Ghaly said Monday that the state was not yet ready to make masks optional in schools even though COVID-19 cases in California have dropped by more than 75% since mid-January. He declined to answer repeated questions on what role teachers unions played in Monday's decision. He also declined to say whether lifting school mask requirements would be tied to specific metrics.

California has had some of the nation’s strictest mask and vaccination requirements, with Newsom announcing last October a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all public and private schoolchildren.

The frustration among parents has prompted some officials to make their own decisions. In a suburb of Sacramento, the Roseville Joint Union High School District school board openly defied the state mandate last week with a unanimous vote to start a "mask optional" policy.

At Corona Norco Unified School District in Riverside County, where students and parents recently protested the school mask mandate, the district said it has set up a supervised, outdoor area where students who refuse to mask up can spend the day protesting or doing schoolwork.

El Dorado Hills is about 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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