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Editorial: About that no-mask, no-returning-to-campus rule: Just kidding

Kindergarten teacher collects crayons from students in classroom
Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Klein collects crayons from students at Lupine Hill Elementary School in Calabasas last November.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The instructions from the state of California on masks at schools were clear and firm, until they suddenly weren’t. And as a result, public health officials have now instilled uncertainty, lack of confidence and quite possibly a certain amount of chaos on campus.

The rules issued late last week said that all K-12 students would wear masks in the classroom come fall. And then on Monday, officials doubled down, declaring that no student who refused to wear a mask could be on campus.

It was the kind of firm statewide rulemaking on schools that had been lacking for too many months. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state had told schools when they couldn’t reopen, but not when they would have to reopen. Districts that were struggling with unions reluctant to go back to campus and with groups of parents with conflicting desires could have used clear, decisive rules from the state. Now, finally, they had them.

But Monday evening, less than five hours after the no-masks-no-returning-to-campus rule, the state suddenly changed its mind and said it was reconsidering. Without explaining why, a spokesman told The Times that the mask mandate would stay, but how schools enforced it would be up to them. If that’s true, it means that there’s a statewide mask rule that isn’t actually a mask rule.

There may have been legitimate reasons for the whipsawing, but the state hasn’t given one so far. It owes schools and the public at least that much. Did school districts come up with credible plans for keeping kids safe even if they weren’t wearing masks? And if that’s the case, why didn’t the state ask school districts first? Did enough parents in affluent areas with low COVID-19 rates threaten to make political hay of a masking requirement as the gubernatorial recall election approaches?

And in the end, why bother having an absolute mask rule without an absolute plan for enforcement? In essence, the state is leaving schools to do whatever they think is best on masks, which it shouldn’t do.

The original mandate made sense. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that only unvaccinated people need to wear face coverings, but schools can’t be expected to track who’s supposed to wear a mask and who doesn’t need to. And no children younger than 12 are vaccinated; they all need masks. Yet, once again the state is leaving school districts holding the bag, trying to deal with the complaints of parents who want maximum freedom for their children and those who fear for their families’ safety.

Of course, the state could change its mind a little further into the school year, as everyone gets a chance to see how safe it is in full classrooms, how much the masks affect everyday school life and in what ways the Delta variant of the coronavirus changes transmission and public safety.

But this sudden switcheroo makes it look as though officials don’t really know what they’re doing on school safety. And as a consequence, a lot of California parents aren’t going to see future state mandates on back-to-school COVID safety as well-researched, science-based or definitive.


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