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More than 50 high school students protest mask mandate 

Administrators remove students from classrooms for not wearing masks

– On Tuesday morning a group of students at Paso Robles High School came to class without face masks to protest the rule.

Wearing masks at school has been required since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic by the California Department of Public Health. The mask mandate has been enforced by local school districts, administrators, and teachers.

While sitting in first-period English class without a mask on, Hunter Breese, a protest organizer, was asked to leave the classroom and report to school security.

Breese, a 17-year-old senior at the high school, said he and a few friends started planning a protest last Thursday. He expected about 20 students to join the protest, but throughout the day the number swelled to around 70, he said. School administrators were seen going from classroom to classroom looking for students not wearing masks and rounding them up in Bearcat Hall on the campus.

“It comes to a point where enough is enough and people need to start standing up,” Breese says. “A group of students got together and decided that we did not want to wear the masks today at the high school. So, we walked into school without them and respectfully declined to wear them, and told the teachers we don’t want to wear them.”

“We’re tired of the mandates,” he said. “We’re tired of how it’s affecting us academically and emotionally.” Some teachers are grading students on how well the students wear their masks, whether a mask slip is accidental or intentional, he said.

The school district acknowledged the protest on campus Tuesday. “A small percentage of students are protesting the continued mask mandate at PRHS,” says Jen Gaviola, deputy superintendent of the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District.

“Currently, students are with the administration,” she wrote at about 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon. “Parents have been notified the students are out of class and refusing to wear a mask. The administration is giving students options related to their ‘protest’ and responsible next steps related to creating change in our school community related to mask mandates.”

Initially, protesting students were told, “You can stay here or go back to class with a mask on,” but after the protest grew to fill Bearcat Hall, administrators put a limit on additional protestors, Breese said. Administrators cited health and safety concerns as well as a shortage of staff to look after the protestors, students said. After that, additional protestors were told to go back to class with masks or have a parent call them out of class, or be threatened with suspension, Breese said. Some students had their phones taken away, he said.

High school principal responds

In a letter to students and parents on late Thursday afternoon, Paso Robles High School Principal Anthony Overton addressed the protest:

Dear Bearcat Families and Students,

Today, a group of students respectfully refused to comply with the K-12 setting indoor mask mandate from State and County Public Health. These students were not allowed to remain in class, a decision made in alignment with our current district policy aligned to State and County Public Health requirements. Students were, however, given the option to an alternate setting where they participated in letter writing to community leaders and other means to share their concerns with policymakers.

We appreciate the respectful and cooperative manner in which most students raised awareness around mask mandates today. We are not, however, able to continue with the same format and dialogue provided today. Tomorrow, we ​will return to normal operation and adherence to the current district policy aligned with the current State and County Public Health mandate. Parents/guardians of students who refuse to wear a mask will be sent home. At this time, that guidance requires that students wear masks indoors in K-12 settings. The State of California is revisiting the mask mandate on Feb. 28, and we are hopeful for some significant changes in the requirements at that time. Additionally, our PRJUSD Board of Trustees will be discussing/reviewing our policy around mask adherence this upcoming Tuesday, Feb. 22, board meeting. Students are welcome to provide a public comment in writing, or in person, at that time.

Principal Overton

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