Editorial: Schools are doing fine with masks. Dropping mandates now would be premature

 A girl in a face mask.
A student at Montara Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a relief to watch Omicron numbers fall off. California is lifting its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated people Wednesday, but not for schools — at least, not yet. State officials will reassess the situation Feb. 28, Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of Health and Human Services, said Monday.

Ghaly is right to delay, though COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have dropped dramatically since January. Attending school carries a higher risk of transmission than a stroll through the supermarket. Students and teachers are close together for hours each weekday. And though children are generally less likely to get seriously ill if infected, they can still pass infections picked up at school to vulnerable people at home and in their communities.

The vaccination rate for California children in elementary school is extremely low, at 28%, so a “no masks for vaccinated students” policy would not be effective. And school personnel lack the bandwidth to track which kids have gotten their jabs and to enforce mask rules for those who haven’t.


Another consideration is the importance of keeping schools open and having as many students as possible attend. Some parents won’t feel safe sending their kids to mask-free classrooms, and many depend on schools not just for academics but for child care and nutritious meals. If masking keeps schools open, it certainly should be continued.

Whatever changes are contemplated, teachers must be part of the discussion. Even though most — and virtually all in Los Angeles Unified — are vaccinated, many feel strongly about preventing breakthrough infections. The pandemic has been hard on teachers, and too many are leaving the field. Ready and qualified replacements aren’t available. Pulling mask mandates from schools may end of hurting students if they’re taught by a constantly rotating lineup of substitutes.

As we’ve noted before, kids are now used to wearing masks and seldom complain.

The state is right to wait until the downward case trend becomes more of a certainty before lifting the school mandate. In the meantime, Ghaly needs to spell out for the public what has to happen in the next two weeks before the rule is changed. (Individual counties and school districts could continue requiring masks, even if the state lifts its mandate.) How low do the COVID-19 case rates have to go, and among which groups? Will lifting the mandate require an uptick in vaccination rates for children?

We would love to see the students’ uncovered faces and allow them to witness the smiles of their classmates and teachers once again. But it would be a serious misstep if the state acted prematurely and put the education of kids and the well-being of schools and communities at risk.