Hundreds of students in Oakdale, California, participated in protests against school mask mandates this week, saying that they were following Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s example.
Students at Oakdale High School, located east of the San Francisco Bay Area in the state’s Central Valley region, were banned from attending class after they refused to wear face masks.
The students were instead placed in the gymnasium, which has been designated as a protest site.
The Oakdale Police Department on Feb. 2 said that protests at the high school and other schools in the district were small and peaceful.
“Today there are a few schools throughout town where protests have taken place related to the COVID-19 mask mandate. These gatherings have been small in nature and have been peaceful,” the department wrote on Facebook.
Photos and videos of the protest were posted to social media by Let Them Breathe, a group that opposes school mask mandates.
High school freshman Nolan Harris was one of those protesting. He told KOVR-TV that “about a hundred” high school students were packed into the gym after they refused to wear face masks because Newsom didn’t wear a mask at the NFC Championship Game last weekend.
Statewide orders enacted by the governor require students to wear masks in schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If they don’t follow by their own rules that they’re trying to force upon me, why should I follow them,” Harris said.
After being sent to the gym, the students marched from the high school to the district office demanding an end to the school’s mask policy.
Oakdale Joint Unified School District Superintendent Dave Kline told the Modesto Bee the protesting students created a “difficult” situation for school administrators, who are required by law to enforce the mask mandate.
“They’re very upset with the mask mandate,” Kline said. “They want to see that going away.”
He said that 375 students refused to wear a mask on Wednesday and another 344 students continued the protest Thursday.
The California Department of Public Health requires K-12 schools to implement an indoor mask requirement for all students and for adults when students are present. The agency says that schools should “offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.”
Kline explained that students who show up to school without a mask are brought to the front office and offered one. If the student refuses, they will be offered a face shield. If that is refused, the school will contact parents to discuss options like taking periodic mask breaks outside.
If students persist in refusing to wear face coverings, staff will place them in an “alternative setting” on campus, Kline told the Bee.
During Wednesday’s protest, elementary school students were sent to the cafeteria and high school students were sent to the gym. Kline said that staff administrators were present to oversee the students.
Some posts on social media claimed that Oakdale high school students were “barricaded” in the school gymnasium and that school officials refused to turn on the heat in an attempt to “freeze them out.” The posts claimed that police were called for a wellness check and that an officer sent to the school had to turn on the heat, but the police department said that was not true.
Oakdale Chief of Police Jerry Ramar told TheBlaze that no one filed a complaint about students being locked or otherwise barricaded in the gym.
“If there were kids barricaded, I think the school resource officer would’ve run that up the chain of command and notified me,” Ramar said.
Police said that someone did call about the temperature in the gym, but the school resource officer checked it and confirmed that temp was 64-65 degrees, which was warmer than the temperature outside.
The police chief added that the protests are a matter for the school district to work with parents and students to resolve and that no related criminal complaints have been filed.
School administrators issued a statement clarifying what happened. “Photographs are circulating on social media of closed folding tables leaning against the gym doors at the high school. The captions say that this occurred in order to keep the protesting students housed in the gym from leaving. This information is false,” the school said.
“The photos are from this week, but the placement was an unintentional and temporary placement as broken tables were being removed and replaced with safer tables. There are many doors in the gym and only the doors shown in the photos had tables temporarily placed in front of them,” the school said.
A notice to parents from Oakdale High School officials posted by Let Them Breathe said that “no student will ever be forced to stay in the protest area.”
But the school explained that students who wish to join the protest must come to school and report to the gymnasium within the first 20 minutes of first period. “Students who arrive after that time or who want to only protest a period, will not be admitted to the mask protest room, and their absence for periods missed will not be verified,” the school administration said.
“Any student who refuses to wear a mask during class but is not in the mask protest site … will be sent home for the day,” the notice added. “If a student chooses to leave, they will not be readmitted to the protest area. The expectation is that students will remain for the school day, complete coursework while in the protest room, and stay caught up with all coursework inasmuch as is possible when not physically attending class.”
The school district said it will continue to follow the state’s mask mandate in accordance with CDC guidelines.