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California’s School Mask Mandate Remains In Place For Now — But An End May Be In Sight

Three school officials, including two doctors in white lab coats, stand in a classroom with desks and chairs behind them.
Principal Josie Flores (left) leads a tour of L.A. Unified's Euclid Avenue Elementary School in Boyle Heights, accompanied by LAUSD Medical Director Dr. Smita Malhotra (center) and Dr. Rosina Franco, senior physician for LAUSD's Student Medical Services unit.
(Kyle Stokes
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It could be the beginning of the end for California’s blanket rule that students must wear masks in K-12 schools.

California’s School Mask Mandate Remains In Place For Now — But An End May Be In Sight

California’s top public health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, laid out a timetable on Monday, saying officials would “reassess” COVID-19 trends at the end of the month and announce on Feb. 28 an exact date for lifting the school mask requirement.

Until Feb. 28, though, the rule will remain in place — and whenever it changes, Ghaly said the state would still “strongly recommend” students in schools continue to wear masks.

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The move inches California closer to becoming the latest blue state to move to drop school mask requirements. Leaders in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon have all recently announced plans to sunset their statewide school masking rules in coming weeks. New York also recently stopped mandating masks in most indoor settings, though the state’s governor said schools there will continue to require them.

Ghaly, who heads the California Health and Human Services Agency, said Monday’s announcement — and the Feb. 28 announcement to come — gives schools time to brace for the change.

“It's certainly going to take some time,” Ghaly said, “for schools … and public health leaders across the state to prepare, and families to prepare.”

The County Rules Endure

Even after state officials announce their next steps, it’s not clear when many Southern California will feel the effects of the state-level action.

Schools, districts or health authorities will still be able to impose their own mask mandates. Currently, L.A. County schools must obey a separate, stricter order from local health officials that requires use of non-cloth face coverings — such as N95, KN95 or surgical masks — anywhere on school grounds.

In districts like Los Angeles Unified, a labor agreement with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, requires masking through the end of the school year — though this provision of the agreement can be renegotiated.

"COVID positivity rates are on the decline," UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement, "but it would be premature to stop all masking at school sites while the virus is still widespread in our communities."

However, there is no such order in some counties, including Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura, meaning students and staff there would be able to attend indoor classes without masks if the state were to lift its mandate.

L.A. County Department of Public Health officials have said as recently as last week that they’re reluctant to lift their countywide indoor mask mandate until COVID-19 vaccinations have been available for children under age 5 for at least eight weeks. The department’s director, Barbara Ferrer, estimated that means the mandate will remain in place through April and perhaps into early May.

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“We share in the desire to take masks off,” Ferrer said. “The issue is one of timing. Masks provide an essential layer of protection when transmission is high and help us drive down case numbers.”

Ferrer has said L.A. County will soon relax its mask mandate to allow students to unmask while outdoors on school grounds; that change could come as early as Thursday, assuming that hospitalizations continue to trend down.

Even as the omicron wave subsides, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics are both sticking with their recommendations that schools require masks indoors.

President Joe Biden said in an interview this weekend that it was “probably premature” to lift indoor mask requirements, according to The New York Times.

Polls show school mask mandates continue to enjoy popular support.

However, some parents, teachers and other experts are raising concerns about the effects of long-term masking on childrens’ brain development. They also note that N95 masks — among the most effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 — are not manufactured to fit a child’s face.

Critics also question “the fairness of continuing to require masks for children indefinitely, especially when they are less often required in many of the places adults gather, such as restaurants and bars,” reported NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom has said statewide teachers unions — a powerful lobby in Sacramento — have urged his administration not to rush any decision on school mask rules: "I think that's responsible," he said in a press conference last week.

On Monday, the state's largest teachers union issued a statement praising Newsom's "cautious" approach.

"We support the administration’s decision," read the statement from E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, "to pause and gather more information to make a science-based decision on school masking that responds to this moment in the pandemic and helps the state transition with an eye on equity. We will continue to assess state and local conditions over the next two weeks, just as local school districts and communities assess their own needs."

Jackie Fortiér contributed to this reporting.

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”).

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