Soulsbyville Elementary School

The Soulsbyville Elementary school board voted 4-1 Monday to ignore state public health guidance requiring mandatory universal masking indoors, to limit quarantine protocols, and to ignore any vaccine mandate that could be required in future.

The board’s decision highlights how hyperlocal governing bodies in the Mother Lode, like school boards in communities across the nation, are challenging federal, state and county public health mandates intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.

A four-page resolution passed by the board states that parents or guardians can decide whether their children at Soulsbyville El will wear masks or not, effective Jan. 3; that the board will strive to find ways to shorten, minimize, and reduce impact of quarantines on students; and that the board will not enforce or pre-emptively implement a vaccine requirement.

“We’re aware of the resolution at Soulsbyville, and we’ve spoken with their superintendent and reminded him the mandates the board voted to ignore are legal obligations,” Dr. Eric Sergienko, Tuolumne County’s interim health officer, said Friday in a press briefing.

“The state health officer orders are legal and valid and they’ve been upheld in court,” Sergienko said. “It’s a challenge for them as a school district. They’re obligated to uphold California state law. Bottom line, the expectation is schools are supposed to follow the law, and if they don’t they expose themselves to risk and costs because of that risk.”

Board members Timothy Morton, James Evans, Dena Canaday, and Heather Spangler voted yes to approve the resolution. Josh Milbourn, the board president, said in a phone interview Friday he voted no.

“I voted against the resolution because it’s essentially telling our school administration to go against the state mandate for masking, which has the effect of law,” Milbourn said. “I don’t think we need to go against the law in order to have our voices heard as a community. I want to emphasize that in our community at Soulsbyville, we don’t always agree, but there’s mutual respect and caring for each other, and I’m hopeful we will get through this together.”

Before the school board voted, the board surveyed parents on masking, vaccinations, quarantines, and mandates, and got 290 responses, Milbourn said. School administrators surveyed classified staff, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers, receiving 23 responses, and certificated staff, the school’s teachers, and received 26 responses.

A 40-page summary of the survey results includes a page that states 83% of respondents infrequently to never mask their children in public and do not believe that masks should be required; 5% always mask in public, think it should be required and are not OK with it being optional; and 11% are in the middle somewhere.

Another page states 46% of teachers want vaccines required for students, 54% want vaccines required for staff, and 42% don’t want vaccine requirements for either. 

Mary Lindsley, the Soulsbyville Elementary principal, referred questions this week to Jeff Winfield, the Soulsbyville District superintendent. 

Asked what the board’s resolution means for students and staff on campus, whether he supports the school board's decision, and whether he communicated the school board decision to parents, Winfield initially responded, “We continue to support our school community through this difficult time of navigating the changing conditions of COVID-19.”

Winfield later added, “We sent out a text with a link to the resolution to families and are available for communication with our community through phone, text, email, letters, or personal meeting. Yes, we do want our school community informed and are working to answer their questions and to learn from them any identified impacts for their families. I have no other position at this time.”

A concerned parent with one child attending Soulsbyville Elementary did not want her name published. She said she and her family have been part of the Soulsbyville community for years, and she loves the school and its reputation. At the same time, she is disappointed in the school board’s vote to ignore public health mandates.

“Soulsbyville is like a really special school,” she said Friday in a phone interview. “I’m proud to have my kid there. The way they teach the kids, it’s more than just the basics. They teach the kids how to be good humans. There’s buddy benches. If you’re feeling lonely you can sit on a buddy bench and kids will come and take you to play with them. It’s important to the staff and teachers to help the kids become good humans in the world. They foster that kind of environment.”

She said she liked the way Soulsbyville Elementary handled the pandemic when it began last year. There were cases of COVID-19 at the school but there was never an outbreak, she said. 

Sometimes individual students were quarantined and sometimes entire classes, and they never had an outbreak like other schools that did, she said.

“We were following the mandates and we did not have an issue with a large outbreak,” she said. “This year we’ve continued to follow the mandates and we’ve had even less cases.”

Fast forward to Monday, when the school board voted 4-1 to ignore mandates from the state of California and recommendations of state and county public health authorities, and she said her opinion has changed.

“I feel that it completely goes against the standards that Soulsbyville has set,” she said. “This board’s decision shows children they don’t have to follow rules and laws. It is putting medically-at-risk children, children who may be at risk from greater complications with COVID, at further risk. It’s a child’s civil right to have a safe and secure place of education. The board’s decision takes away that safety.”

Cathy Parker, the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools, said late Friday afternoon her office’s policy for masks at schools in the county is in line with the state requirement for universal masking indoors at K-12 schools. 

“TCSOS follows all laws,” she added.

The office’s policies are in alignment with California Department of Public Health and Cal OSHA directives and are in compliance with the law, Parker said.

Parker said that in order for Tuolumne County schools to receive federal elementary and secondary school emergency relief funding — more than $120 billion earmarked for schools from the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law in March — all school districts are required to adhere to assurances submitted by her office to the state earlier this year.

“School districts have an obligation to follow the laws,” she said. “School districts run the risk of losing membership in and coverage by the Joint Powers Authority which provides property and liability and workers compensation insurance programs for Alpine, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.”

Parker also shared an Aug. 23 letter from Dr. Tomás Aragón, the state public health officer and director, to school leaders statewide. Aragón’s letter includes headlines in bold such as “Legal Requirements for Schools to Implement Universal Masking” and “Schools Face Substantial Legal, Financial, and Other Risks if They Do Not Follow Mandatory Universal Masking Directive” and “Opposition to Mask Requirements Is Based on Misinformation.”

Among the points Aragón makes are that courts have long recognized school leaders have a heightened duty of care to protect health and safety of students. In light of overwhelming evidence about risks to students of not implementing the universal masking requirement, “schools and school leaders involved in that decision could face significant financial liability if a student or staff member contracts COVID-19 in the absence of universal masking being enforced.”

In addition, Aragón says, schools and school officials involved in the decision not to follow the mandatory public health guidance may face civil lawsuits by concerned families and staff compelling them to comply with the guidance. “As noted, the public health directive has the force of law, and a mandatory duty therefore exists for schools to implement the guidance.”

Aragón also says certificated individuals, including school administrators, may be subject to referral to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing for disciplinary action for violating a mandatory legal duty to implement the masking requirement and knowingly exposing students to preventable harm.

Furthermore, Aragón says, schools and school officials may be subject to fines or civil enforcement actions by local health officers for refusal to adhere to the mandatory masking directive, pursuant to Health and Safety Code section 120175.

And finally, Aragón says, Education Code section 49403 states clearly “the governing board of a school district shall cooperate with the local health o!icer in measures necessary for the prevention and control of communicable diseases in school-age children.”

As of early Friday afternoon, COVID-19 had contributed to the deaths of 148 people in Tuolumne County, 74,996 Californians, and more than 805,250 Americans since the pandemic began in early 2020.

See the resolution and survey results

To read the full, four-page resolution passed by the Soulsbyville Elementary board visit https://bit.ly/3GU0SPK online. To view results of a Soulsbyville Elementary survey of parents about masks, vaccines, quarantines, and mandates visit https://bit.ly/3E7o7ni online.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.