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California Will End School Mask Requirement After March 11 — And LA County Will Too

A row of students, all wearing polo shirts and blue surgical masks.
Students at Boys Academic Leadership Academy in the South L.A. neighborhood of Westmont.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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Starting on March 12, students in K-12 schools across much of California will be able to attend classes without wearing masks, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday.

Newsom announced plans to lift a blanket health order requiring masks in schools and child care facilities statewide. The change marks a major relaxation of California’s approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic in settings where adults and young children interact, which has been among the most cautious in the nation.

Local jurisdictions may continue to require masks in schools — but on Monday, the health departments covering L.A. County and the city of Long Beach also announced that they will align with the state's new guidance and drop a local health order requiring masks inside schools and child care facilities starting on March 12.

A spokesperson for the Pasadena Public Health Department — which, like Long Beach, is independent from the county — said the city would review local COVID-19 data "and work with L.A. County to provide a timeline for new guidance for schools based on lower risk."

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Health orders aside, the Los Angeles Unified School District has also formally agreed with its teachers union to require mask use through the end of the school year. Changing that agreement would require negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles, and in a statement on Monday, union leaders reiterated their contention that it would be “premature” to end the district's mask requirement.

But no local masking orders exist in Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties. Schools there could drop mask requirements after March 11 — unless an agreement with a labor union requires their use.

Masks Still Strongly Recommended, But Compliance Rates May Vary

Newsom announced the changes in a joint statement with the governors of Oregon and Washington state, which also announced the end to school masking rules in their states. Newsom said state officials still “strongly recommend” that students and staff wear masks in schools.

“Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high,” Newsom’s statement said. “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.”

Monday’s announcement comes as “compliance with universal school masking rules is fraying in various parts of the state,” as the California School Boards Association recently said. A suburban San Diego County district also recently decided to defy the state’s order by making masks optional. One Northern California district recently dropped a mask mandate, breaking an agreement with its own teachers union.

By contrast, LAUSD only recently allowed students to go masklessoutdoors on its campuses, even though the state and county has allowed this for most of the pandemic — and even after this change, some parents and principals report that students continue to wear masks in outdoor play yards.

'Mixed' Reactions

Newsom has acknowledged he has faced pressure from statewide teachers unions not to rush the decision to drop mask mandates in schools.

In a statement, United Teachers Los Angeles president Cecily Myart-Cruz pointed to a recent poll showing strong support among Californians for K-12 mask mandates. Myart-Cruz suggested that LAUSD ought to follow the governor's strong recommendation and maintain its mask policy.

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“While declining COVID rates are promising," she said, "educators agree with Governor Newsom’s statement strongly recommending that masking stay in place in schools."

"Reaction to today’s announcement will be mixed," said E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association. the state's largest teachers union. "Simply put, while some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid."

Some advocacy groups that have argued against mask mandates throughout the pandemic said Newsom did not go far enough.

"California has treated children in a way that doesn’t correspond to their low risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19," said Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of the advocacy organization CA Parent Power.

"Once the mandate is lifted," Bacigalupi added, "it is incumbent upon local districts to heed the guidance from CDPH and allow their students to unmask on March 11."

CDC's New Guidance For Schools

California’s change also follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s move to relax its masking recommendations for schools.

For much of the pandemic, the CDC has urged everyone in schools to wear masks. But on Friday, CDC officials changed their guidance, recommending now that only communities with higher hospitalization rates should maintain mask requirements in schools.

Under the new guidance, the CDC recommends L.A. County maintain mask requirements in K-12 school settings — since the local “community level” of COVID-19 remains “high.”

In Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties — which fall into the “medium” Covid transmission category — the CDC only urges high-risk or immunocompromised individuals to talk with their health care providers about whether they should keep wearing masks.

Early childhood reporter Mariana Dale and health reporter Jackie Fortiér contributed to this story.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

Updated March 1, 2022 at 9:00 AM PST
This story was updated to include a statement from the Long Beach Health Department that it will drop school mask requirements starting on March 12.