As mask mandates ease, should California schools be next?
Educators and families are bracing for another round of pandemic policy shifts as California officials weigh when to lift mask mandates for schools — with some demanding that students be allowed to unmask and others urging caution.
A general easing of rules is set for Feb. 16 — when California is poised to lift mask mandates for vaccinated residents in indoor public places. The change would not immediately affect Los Angeles County until public health officials modify their local rules.
Local health orders on COVID-19 safety measures are allowed to be more strict than state guidelines.
But state officials did not announce what will happen in schools — a growing tension point among parents — and local school officials were left speculating about the next moves in the long saga of shifting school pandemic policies.
Currently, the state requires all K-12 students and staff to wear masks indoors. And L.A. County also requires wearing masks outdoors on campus. But school mandates across the country are loosening. This week, officials in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon announced timelines for relaxing mask requirements for schools. In other states, elected officials and school districts are battling over masking policies, a fight that has carried over into litigation.
On Tuesday, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was too soon to change federal masking guidelines for K-12 schools. The CDC “still recommends that all schools encourage students to wear well-fitting masks consistently and while indoors,” Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a radio interview. The CDC guidelines do not speak to local decisions on mask mandates.
Some school superintendents support lifting the mandate — provided that the available science supports it.
“This would be welcome news to many students and families,” said Supt. Alex Cherniss of Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District. “Those students and staff who would want to continue to wear masks could, of course, do so. It sure seems like the next logical move for all sectors and would tremendously benefit education, provided that COVID positivity rates continue their decline.”
California will lift mask mandate for vaccinated residents in indoor public places next week
Masks will still be required for unvaccinated residents indoors and for everyone in select settings such as hospitals and nursing homes or while aboard public transit.
Las Virgenes Unified Supt. Dan Stepenosky said he would “strongly support a reconsideration and relaxation of the masking requirements for schools.”
“We have to continue to evolve our thinking and approach to the pandemic,” said Stepenosky, whose school system straddles the border between L.A. and Ventura counties. “Vaccines have been available for some time now and the metrics on the latest surge are dropping dramatically.”
“Another idea,” he added: “Schools with vax rates over 65% can relax masks.”
Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg was hesitant to move quickly.
“I would still keep the mask mandate indoors, but would consider relaxing masks outdoors — if 80% of the students are vaccinated at that school,” said Goldberg, who also was concerned about the potential for the upcoming Super Bowl in Los Angeles to spread infection.
“Nobody likes masks,” she added, “but COVID-19 is not disappearing, and there is no way to avoid close contact in most classrooms.”
Board member Nick Melvoin is ready to go somewhat further.
“Given everything we have learned about how the virus spreads and the rapid decline in cases we’re seeing, I hope that updated guidance will allow the district to remove the outdoor masking requirement,” Melvoin said.
Cases still remain much higher than before the Omicron surge, and masking rules remain in place.
He said he also wanted to see consistent guidelines from state, county and district officials, “so there is less confusion and whiplash for families.”
The health of communities should be the top priority, said Lynwood Unified Supt. Gudiel R. Crosthwaite.
“The wearing of masks at Lynwood Unified has been an important safety measure,” Crosthwaite said. “KN95 masks have been distributed to staff, with each district employee receiving an ongoing 10-day supply, while medical-grade blue masks have been distributed to all school sites for students.”
For Encinitas parent Jennifer Harris, masks and COVID-19 vaccines should be the choice of parents.
“My children’s social, emotional and academic needs have been harmed by forced masking imposed by the state of California,” Harris said.
Parent Christie Pesicka spoke of an urgency to get schooling back at least to what it used to be — with no masks.
“I have followed the strictest lockdowns and guidelines in hopes of a return to normalcy for my son,” said Pesicka, a leader of California Students United, a parents group that worked to reopen pandemic-closed campuses more quickly. “Early education is about phonics, reading, communication, socialization and nonverbal cues. All of which are impeded by long-term mask mandates.”
She added that those who are uncomfortable or at high risk can protect themselves by choosing to mask: “One-way KN95/N95 masking is an effective option.”
San Diego County parent Sharon McKeeman, who has spearheaded unsuccessful California litigation to halt student mask mandates, said, “Freeing students’ smiles is long overdue.”
But Los Angeles parent Jenna Schwartz said it would be a mistake to assume that all or even most parents felt this way.
“While the anti-mask contingency is a loud group,” she said she believes “the overwhelming number of parents still support mask mandates, and I suspect we will see some opposition to lifting the outdoor mandate,” let alone the mandate to wear masks indoors.
Schwartz moderates the site Parents Supporting Teachers, with voices that span a range of views.
Recent, reliable polling of California or Los Angeles parents about student masking is unavailable — and attitudes can shift quickly as events evolve. Nationally, more than 70% of Americans favored, at a minimum, masking in K-12 public schools as a response to increasing cases of COVID-19 in their local community, according to the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Mood of the Nation Poll, conducted from Nov. 30 to Dec. 7, just as the Omicron variant was taking hold in the U.S.
Shortly after, infection rates surged to record levels. But they have recently fallen rapidly, while remaining at high levels compared with other times during the two full years of the pandemic. The swift decrease was a prime factor that prompted the state to relax mask rules in public places.
Although some parents oppose vaccine and mask mandates — or support both strategies — the dividing lines are not always so clear.
Bay Area parent Morgan Robinson, a mother of two, described herself as “incredibly pro-vaccine.”
“My children are vaccinated — the first day they could be,” Robinson said. “My husband and I are boosted. If we are lifting restrictions, I’d like them to be lifted on the lowest risk cohort: the children. I’d be happy for all COVID restrictions on children to stop now. If there needs to be any restrictions reinstated, I hope they come back to adults first and children last.”
And, conversely, some opposed to COVID-19 vaccines have relied on masking as their preferred safety measure.
Los Angeles parent Amy Clarke is not ready to end masking.
“Regardless of what the rest of the state does, schools absolutely must keep the mask mandate for kids,” Clarke said. “Kids are seated next to each other for hours inside and are subject to breathing in whatever viruses their neighbors expel, and the ventilation in most schools is terrible.”
She also worries about the potential of students spreading the infection to those who are vulnerable.
It remains to be seen where unions representing teachers and other school employees will come down. Notably, they did not rush out with endorsements for easing masking rules.
United Teachers Los Angeles had no comment. Nor did the California Teachers Assn., the largest statewide teachers union.
Jeff Freitas, the head of CFT, the other major statewide teachers union, talked of “an offramp — that is based on science and not politics.”
He added that the metrics and timeline “should be developed by public health experts ... in consultation with educators and parents,” prioritizing “the health and safety of our hardest-hit communities.”
Another note of caution came from Max Arias, executive director of Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents the largest number of nonteaching campus workers in L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system.
“Any change to current regulations, including masking, must be done under the guidance of our public health agencies with enough time for planning and safe implementation,” Arias said.
Santa Monica-Malibu schools Supt. Ben Drati has heard from pro-mask and anti-mask camps.
“We are aware that our parents have mixed feelings about this move,” Drati said. “We have many parents requesting that we maintain our strict protocols and others who are urging us to discontinue masking of staff and students as quickly as possible.”
He added: “We have been discussing offramping strategies... We look forward to the day we can see the smiling faces of our students and staff again.”
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