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Mask guidance questioned as parents pressure Turlock Unified Board
TUSD masks
During the first TUSD board meeting completely open to the public since the pandemic first began, parents packed the room to protest the current mask policy for students. (ANGELINA MARTIN/Turlock Journal).

Emotions ran high on Tuesday night as Turlock Unified School District parents filled the seats at the Board of Trustees meeting, calling for its members to seek alternatives to the masking requirements for students — and it worked.

Following nearly an hour of public comment and even more time spent discussing the legality of the issue, trustees decided to follow nearby Modesto City Schools’ lead and directed staff to draft a letter to the California Department of Public Health asking for local control when it comes to mask mandates. The Modesto Board approved and sent a similar letter last week and the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors also voted to support it, which led Turlock parents to ask the same of the TUSD trustees during Tuesday’s meeting. 

The letter will not ask for permission to dictate local control of masks, Superintendent Dana Sales-Trevethan pointed out to parents, but rather the ability to follow guidance from Stanislaus County public health officials based on local COVID data instead of the statewide, one-size-fits-all approach currently in place. 

Under CDPH guidance released last month, masks must be worn indoors at all times by students and teachers in school buildings, vaccinated or not. Masks outdoors are optional.

Melissa Cortinas, a fourth-grade teacher at Walnut Elementary Education Center and wife to trustee Jeffrey Cortinas, said she was disappointed in the district’s hard stance on masks. She said that she emailed the board members studies demonstrating that the risks of prolonged mask-wearing by kids greatly outweigh the benefits.

“I’m also struggling to understand why going to the grocery store and out to eat mask free is perfectly fine, but somehow it’s dangerous for me to teach a stable group of kids mask free in my classroom,” Melissa Cortinas said. “...I know that you might be afraid because of lawsuits or maybe about losing funding, but don’t tell us that you can’t do anything. Can’t and won’t aren’t the same thing.”

She was met with raucous applause from parents in attendance, as were most of those who spoke Tuesday night.

To help appease the crowd, TUSD brought in attorney Sloan Simmons from the law firm of Lozano Smith to explain the CDPH mask guidance and why TUSD chose to follow it in legal terms. Jeffrey Cortinas said he thought the district brought in a lawyer who wouldn’t look for a way to fight the mask mandate. 

After plenty of back-and-forth between board members, parents and board president Lori Carlson — which at times became confrontational — the board conferred with Simmons to find that they could draft a letter similar to Modesto’s. 

“I think it’s very important that we listen to each other and not close an ear to things that are true on both sides,” trustee Anthony Silva said over shouts of “You’re not listening!” from parents. 

“I am! Don’t you tell me I’m not listening,” Silva responded.

The exchange was one of many throughout the night, reactions to a hot-button issue which has dominated school board meetings both in Turlock and nationwide for over a year. 

The Board of Trustees will vote on whether or not to send the letter at their next meeting. 

“I’m hoping we can find common ground on this,” Jeffrey Cortinas said.