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California Schools Try to Outrace Covid Outbreaks

 Larry Edgemon's 5th grade class at Del Dayo Elementary School in Carmichael, Calif, Tuesday, Feb 15, 2022.
Andrew Nixon
Larry Edgemon's 5th grade class at Del Dayo Elementary School in Carmichael, Calif, Tuesday, Feb 15, 2022.

A fourth-grade camping trip led to one outbreak, a high school prom to another. But even with covid cases rising as schools head into the final stretch of the academic year, most California districts have not moved toward reinstating mask mandates.

That stance has left many parents confused and concerned as they witness or hear about covid outbreaks among students after field trips and proms.

Up and down California, school administrators are running out the clock, hoping to outrace the outbreaks. The Berkeley school system and a few others have reversed their mask-optional policies, and the San Diego district sent letters to parents warning that masks could be reinstated if cases continue to rise. But most districts — including those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland — haven’t revisited their guidance as summer draws near.

“I do not plan on making any new recommendations in the final three weeks of school,” Dublin Unified Superintendent Chris Funk told KHN, noting that the Alameda County Public Health Department lifted mandatory masking rules in classrooms more than two months ago.

Among other factors, administrators are reluctant to expose districts to legal challenges. From the start, the attempt to create statewide covid protocols for schools was met with sometimes-fierce resistance. Some districts, many of them rural, ignored California’s school mask mandate. In February, the Roseville Joint Union High School District, which enrolls about 12,000 students in Placer and Sacramento counties, dropped the mask rule even as a statewide mandate remained in effect.

Very few of California’s more than 1,000 school districts have joined the Berkeley system in making such a decision. On May 16, school officials in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, ordered that masks be worn inside all classrooms by its roughly 2,000 students. Katrina Powley, the district nurse, said the district is one of the few that ties its masking policy to case rates in Monterey County. Therefore, when those rates moved from “low” to “moderate” transmission, a mask mandate was triggered.

The board of trustees for the San Mateo Union High School District voted in early May to extend its mask mandate until June 1 and strengthened protocols after a prom that was held in San Francisco in April resulted in an outbreak among 90 of the 600 students in attendance.

Those districts remain in the minority despite the statewide covid surge. Roughly 20 schools in Marin County experienced outbreaks in early May. And the Dublin school district, in the East Bay, saw rates shoot up fivefold from March to April and continue to rise in May. Those schools haven’t revisited their optional mask policies.

Schools in Davis, in Yolo County, have not reinstated mask requirements despite rising cases, in large part because the county health director decoupled mandates from test positivity rates.

“We have sufficient protection against the virus, especially with Paxlovid available at test-to-treat locations,” said John Fout, a spokesperson for the county. Only increased hospitalizations straining the health care system would prompt a change, he added.

At this point, an uptick in serious illnesses may not be recognized until after the school year ends — and that is what many school administrators appear to be counting on.

Copyright 2022 California Healthline