California Relaxes Mask Mandate in Schools, Leaving Decision to Local Districts

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Three children are sitting at desks in a classroom with masks on.
Michelle Sharp, 8, wears a mask while sitting in her second grade classroom during the first day of partial in-person instruction at Garfield Elementary School in Oakland, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

California will soon lift its requirement that students wear masks inside schools and child care facilities, leaving it up to local communities and public health officials to determine their own rules on masking. Students can begin attending schools without masks (in districts that allow it) on March 12.

The governor’s office made the announcement this morning, citing low COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates as a reason for the policy shift. While no longer requiring masks inside schools, the state is still recommending them.

“Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in the statement. “We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward.”

The move follows an announcement on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that mask mandates are not needed where case rates and hospitalizations are low or moderate. In the Bay Area, only Napa and Solano counties were designated by the CDC as still having high enough rates to merit continued masking in schools.

Newsom has come under pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the mandates. Over the weekend in San Francisco, a group calling itself Parents for Mask Choice in California Schools protested, saying masking of younger children is disrupting learning and is a psychological stress.

During a press conference Monday, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly shared that the state has been seeing encouraging trends over the last two weeks in the sharp decrease in case, hospitalization and test positivity rates. New COVID cases dropped by 66% from Feb. 14 to Feb. 28, he said.. In that same time period, hospitalizations dropped by 48%, and test positivity rates dropped by more than half, to 2.9%.

"I think those local details, those local conditions are really going to guide," said Ghaly. "We are saying at the state level that if the conditions warrant it and the conversations go to it, those districts, those jurisdictions should feel empowered to keep masking in place because that is the decision that they're making to keep their community safe."

Ghaly also noted how the state's approach has helped California keep schools open, with the percentage of closures far lower than the national average.

But he acknowledged that some parents may still be frustrated with the state's school masking decisions.

"I will tell you that we know for each person out there who may have one view of the decision today that there is another family, another young person who has a different view," Ghaly said. "So public health is not necessarily about balance, it's about leading with data and science and communicating clearly."

In Ventura County, Simi Valley Unified School District Superintendent Jason Peplinski welcomed the news, saying his school board would have allowed kids to go maskless inside schools months ago if it hadn't been for the state's restrictions.

"We've had a lot of angst around this topic for the last few months and it was increasingly less civil," said Peplinski, adding that most of his school community is grateful for the policy shift.

"Now the other side of this topic is there are still parents that probably would prefer that all kids are masked," said Peplinski. "There probably are still employees that would prefer that all students wear masks. So, you know, we're going to have a conversation about this one way or the other."

Kerry Huffman has a son with autism at Richmond’s Mira Vista elementary school in West Contra Costa Unified. She said he would learn better without the mask but she is torn.

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"It is a step in the right direction in general, but I do have some concerns and it goes back to fear as a parent because we are still not out of it. I literally lost someone just last week that I know in my industry to COVID," she said.

In Oakland Unified, parent Pecolia Manigo said when the state leaves it up to districts and local public health officials to decide what is safe, it puts the responsibility on families and on students to have to defend what they believe is safe for them.

"It also truly creates racial tensions, in the middle school, in the high schools," said Manigo. "Because, you know, the students who are not feeling safe are not backed up and not reaffirmed by often staff who may have their own opinions shared or not. And so it's an unfortunate situation. It's unfortunate because it tells certain communities that even though you might have a right to feel safe, we're not going to protect that right."

Last week’s federal guidance shift on masks in schools came two weeks after several states controlled by Democrats, including Oregon, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, already relaxed their school masking rules. On Sunday, New York’s governor said the state would lift its mask mandate on March 2. Several states have banned masks in schools.

National teachers organizations welcomed the CDC’s move away from universal masking. The American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten cautioned, however, against bullying those who want to remain masked.

“Some parents, students and educators will still choose to wear masks, and there should be no stigma for those who do so. We have a duty to protect vulnerable populations and their right to attend school in person, and there should also be a limited remote option for those who require it,” she wrote in a statement.

In reaction to today’s rule change, the California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement that reaction would be mixed.

“While some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid. We urge local school districts to continue to work with educators and families and to act cautiously while prioritizing the safety of students, educators, and their families,” Boyd said.

In San Francisco, Cassondra Curiel, who heads the teachers union, also welcomed a way to ease mask requirements, stating that United Educators of San Francisco would work with the district and the city to "meet the needs of San Francisco students, families, staff, and educators. "

In a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll out last week, of nearly 9,000 California registered voters, 65% approved of requiring masks in schools. In the Bay Area, 74% approved. However, opinions split radically along party lines, with 87% of Democrats approving and just 26% of Republicans.

And parents who continue to lack confidence that their children are safe from the virus while in school may balk at any lifting of mask restrictions.

According to the Berkeley IGS poll, Latino and Black parents expressed less confidence than white and Asian parents that their child was safe from the virus while in school.

Any divide over making masks optional could cause problems inside schools. CalMatters reported on tensions between groups of students at Nevada Joint Union High, south of Nevada City, last week over whether masks should be worn. CalMatters reported that so many of the district’s teachers called in sick in response to the district voting to lift its mask mandate, several schools were shut down.

In Oakland, Halima Watson, a first-year student at Oakland Technical High School, said that even if her district lifts the mask mandate, she’ll keep her mask on to keep others safe. "Because everyone reacts differently to COVID," she said. "I have a friend who had it and she has had neurological problems and she’s had shaking with her body. I feel like it’s better to keep masking, but I feel like there are a lot of kids who don’t wear their masks properly so I don’t know if it will make much of a difference."

Halima said there are already tensions inside her school about kids who don’t take the masking rule seriously. “There’s this kid who I sit next to in geometry who is very, like, whenever another kid has their mask off, he’s like, ‘Put your mask on.’ A lot of people would probably be very against it [lifting the mask mandate].”

Halima’s mom, Kim Watson, predicts if the district has a stricter set of rules than the CDC and the state, it is going to be difficult for teachers trying to insist kids wear their masks. “It could cause tension between peers and also between educators and students,” Watson said.

Some districts across California are already allowing students not to wear masks inside, defying state rules. Other local districts like Berkeley Unified have begun adjusting mask policies in consultation with local health officials and labor partners.

Beginning Feb. 28, BUSD students can go maskless outside. Superintendent Brent Stephens notified parents that the district will review today’s guidance from the state before announcing any planned indoor masking changes.

The Alameda County Office of Education also said it would be reviewing the state's guidance before making any decisions.