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What’s going on with California’s mask rules for schools?

4th graders at Greer Elementary in Arden-Arcade spread out and attend class in smaller cohorts to prevent the spread of COVD-19, Thursday, April 8, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
4th graders at Greer Elementary in Arden-Arcade spread out and attend class in smaller cohorts to prevent the spread of COVD-19, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

For at least the next two weeks, California schoolchildren will remain masked in classrooms — but officials say changes are likely on the horizon.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Monday that he “anticipates” changes to the state’s longstanding school mask requirements on Feb. 28.

“Parents should not hear that we aren’t making a move,” Ghaly said. “We are taking a little bit more time to consider the information, work with our partners across the state to make sure that when the move is made, we are doing it successfully and with communities empowered to continue to be safe.”

Ghaly touted the continued use of masks in California schools as part of the state’s “science-driven approach” to combating the pandemic and keeping classrooms safe.

Meanwhile, several states — Oregon, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware — recently announced plans to lift their indoor mask mandates in March, which will also include schools.

And in recent weeks, school districts have announced different plans for when to unmask students as health experts have been divided over whether the school mask mandate should continue.

Here’s what we know ...

Why not unmask now?

Ghaly’s announcement follows a 72% decline in California’s test positivity rate from the peak of the surge caused by the omicron variant in mid-January.

Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said that rapid drop is expected to continue.

“Predicting the future of COVID is really dangerous because it's impossible to do that,” he said. “That said, I will predict the short term future looks very positive, and that is not only will we drive the cases way down, but I think they're going to stay down for a little while until there's some new perturbation of the pandemic — for example, a new variant.”

The omicron peak was immense, with well over 100,000 cases in California each day several times in January. Despite the dramatic drop in test positivity, Swartzberg says California is a few weeks away from the end of the omicron surge. Right now, case numbers are still above where they were during last summer’s peak.

“We still have an awful lot of virus in our community,” Swartzberg said.

Dr. Glenn Rosenbluth, a professor of pediatrics at UCSF, said the omicron surge means many Californians are now immune “as a result of vaccination, infection or both.” Still, vaccination rates among children are low. Currently, 70% of the state’s total population is fully vaccinated, but the vaccination rate for kids between 5 and 11 years old is just 28%.

“I’m concerned about the overall lower rates of completed vaccination series in children, including the unvaccinated youngest children,” Rosenbluth said. “Some of these children have immunity from infection. However, many are still at-risk of infection, including bringing infections home to at-risk adults.”

Ghaly indicated that case numbers and low vaccination rates for kids are one reason why public health officials are hesitant to unmask now. He also said schools and local communities need time to prepare for a change to the state’s masking rules for students.

“This is not a decision that we take lightly,” Ghaly said. “It is not a hasty one.”

What will schools do?

While state officials keep the school mask mandate in place, districts can add additional requirements, like asking students to wear KN95 or N95 masks instead of cloth coverings. But they cannot impose lighter restrictions without running the risk of ending up in court.

Nevertheless, some schools have announced that they plan to stop enforcing the mask mandate within their hallways this week. Some students and parents have also protested mandates. For instance, in the Inland Empire, several schools have seen students refusing to don face coverings in the past week.

The Roseville Joint Union High School District in Placer County last week passed a “mask optional” policy that takes effect on Tuesday.

On Monday, Ghaly shot that idea down.

“A district like Roseville, they’re in the state of California, so the state requirements apply,” Ghaly said. “I think that will be an important point to make not just here, but for other efforts that we’ve used throughout this pandemic and may need to use down the road as well."

Other districts may continue to require students to be masked, even if the state changes its rules in coming weeks. Dr. Lisa Santora, one of Marin County’s top health officials, said last week that she expects indoor masking to stay until at least March.

“We know that in some pockets of California there will be a decision to maintain something even beyond when the state makes a decision to change,” Ghaly said. “And in other parts it will be an immediate change. We’ve always let local conditions be an important driver in determinations.”

How cautious is too cautious?

Swartzberg with UC Berkeley says he is nervous about relaxing mask mandates too quickly. He points to what happened in October, when officials loosened restrictions on masks for indoor gatherings and capacity limits at large events. Cases never fully died down, which Swartzberg said gave the omicron variant a “higher baseline level” for the most recent surge.

“I think if the goal of these mandates is to keep people safe, to keep significant morbidity and mortality as low as possible, then the prudent public health policy would be to continue these mandates until the numbers are way, way down,” he said.

On Monday, Ghaly said numbers are trending in the right direction. Since Jan. 14, the state’s test positivity rate is down from 22.9% to 6.2%, hospitalizations have decreased by nearly 41% and cases have dropped more than 75%.

Still, other experts have advocated for the school mask mandate to lift entirely. Several doctors signed an open letter published last month calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials to make masking optional in schools. An associated petition had received more than 50,000 signatures as of Monday.

Doctors in favor of loosening the mandate for children note that children are at the lowest risk of serious illness from the omicron variant and argue that the costs of masking outweigh the public health benefits.

Dr. Jeanne Noble, an associate professor of emergency medicine and director of COVID-19 response for the UCSF Emergency Department, applauded California’s public health response in 2020, when little was known about the virus. But Noble, one of the doctors who signed the open letter, said in an interview with KCBS on Feb. 5 that the state needs to reevaluate interventions like masking for kids.

“They are trying to learn,” Noble said. “They are trying to learn language, they are trying to learn to interpret complex facial expressions. They have the most harm from the masks and the least benefit, so we want them first in line.”

A recent study from the CDC showed that mask usage greatly reduces the risk of getting and transmitting COVID-19. Wearing a cloth mask in the study lowered the risk of testing positive by 56%, and wearing a KN95 or N95, the most protective masks, lowered the risk by 83%.

Swartzberg and Rosenbluth both said that there’s weak evidence that masking significantly impacts child development and learning, noting that kids growing up in societies where it is common for adults to cover their faces still learn language and social cues.

“Kids adapt much better than we give them credit for,” Rosenbluth said. “I’m much more concerned about illness, whether of child or their caregiver, impacting children’s development.”

But Swartzberg also acknowledged that masks cannot stay on forever. He said his recommendation is to keep masks on kids only until the omicron surge has fully died down.

“We're talking about weeks,” he said. “If the trajectory of the descent continues where it is in California and in the Bay Area, we may be two weeks away from that, we may be three weeks away from that. So I think we're right about there anyway.”

What’s next?

State officials will take the next two weeks to see if case numbers continue to fall and watch vaccination rates among school-age children. Then, they will give parents, students and schools another update on Feb. 28.

Ghaly anticipates that the state will lay out a timetable for changes to school masking rules during that update. He hinted at moving toward a more localized strategy of masking requirements, allowing counties and school districts to determine their own guidelines.

Until then, masks are still required at California schools.