Editorial: It’s OK for L.A. Unified schools to go mask-optional
Schools in Los Angeles County are testing hundreds of thousands of students for the coronavirus each week. It’s a great way to get a picture of infections in the community because the students and staff are tested routinely, not only if they show symptoms. If the virus was spreading quickly and quietly with asymptomatic cases, this process would show it.
But it is showing the opposite. The rate of prekindergarten through 12th-grade students in Los Angeles County who tested positive in early January was, unsurprisingly, high at more than 14%. At the time, keeping a mask mandate in place just made sense. Infections have plummeted since then, and in the first week of March, the positivity rate among county students was less than one-third of 1%. L.A. Unified’s coronavirus rates are similarly low for teachers and students, a district spokesperson said.
Add to this encouraging trend the relative mildness of the dominant Omicron strain and it’s reasonable for the Los Angeles Unified School District to consider lifting its indoor mask mandate to align with state policy and the practice in most other L.A. County school districts.
The state’s indoor mask mandate for schools was lifted Monday, and most districts followed suit. The issue is under discussion at L.A. Unified, which has kept its mask mandate so far. Alberto Carvalho, the district’s new superintendent, appeared to support lifting the mandate when he tweeted on Tuesday: “Either we follow science or we follow nothing. Change is coming.”
It’s just not feasible to hold on to mandates until the risk from COVID-19 is zero. It is unlikely the virus will go away entirely. Meanwhile, fully vaccinated people are highly protected against hospitalization and death. If the situation should worsen, it would be easy to require masks again.
Omicron numbers are headed the right way. School mask mandates could end or be softened, but let’s not blow it by being hasty.
Of course the teachers should be part of the discussion about changes to mask policy. And they are; the district agreed to negotiate changes to the mandatory mask policy with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and a new poll of its members found that of the 60% or so who responded, 58% want to keep the mandate. Teachers are among those who have been through an especially rough time during the pandemic, and the schools don’t want them to feel that their safety is jeopardized. But in-person classes have been operating safely even through the worst days of Omicron in late December and early January, and at this point all L.A. Unified teachers either are vaccinated or have a valid excuse not to be.
The infection risk for teachers is reduced further because close to 90% of LAUSD students 12 and older also are vaccinated. Fewer elementary school students are vaccinated, but a recent study, not yet peer-reviewed, found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was much less effective in this age group than for older children and adults, so it’s unclear how much safety would be improved by higher vaccination numbers. It’s the only vaccine approved so far for younger children.
Nevertheless, when it comes to COVID-19 policy, the district has to be sensitive to the fears of a battered staff and community. If the district lifts the mandate, it should still encourage the use of masks, as the state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do, and provide some additional safety measures, such as allowing teachers who have particular health concerns — such as having baby or other very vulnerable family member at home — to require masks in their own classrooms.
It’s a shame that the district failed to put in place a system of metrics identifying what levels of infection or other conditions would automatically trigger or end mandatory masking. But it could do so now, in consultation with the teachers union.
Ultimately, the district must base its decision on data and science that balance the needs of the teachers, staff, students, parents and the community at large.
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