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California’s school mask mandate will continue at least until Feb. 28

COVID-19

Districts can choose to keep mask requirements even after the state lifts them.

California is keeping its schoolchildren in masks at least until Monday, Feb. 28, even though it is lifting the statewide indoor mask mandate for vaccinated people nearly everywhere else, state officials said Feb. 14.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state health and human services secretary, suggested the state would lift the school mask mandate in two weeks but would still strongly recommend masks in school for students and staff.

“We anticipate making the change at that point, and that change is going to be one that I think will be met with a lot of excitement in some and a lot of fear in other circles,” Ghaly said in an online news conference.

Ghaly also suggested that when the state’s school mask mandate is lifted, school districts will be allowed to continue requiring masks if they wish.

“Local decisions are not just allowed, they’re well-supported,” Ghaly said.

The state’s cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus are trending downward after a large Omicron surge, with cases down 75 percent compared with a month ago and hospitalizations down 41 percent.

The announcement that the state school mask mandate would continue until the end of the month outraged parents who are tired of the mask requirement for children, who studies have shown are less likely to get seriously sick from COVID.

Several San Diego-area parents said two years has been too long to continue enforcing pandemic safety measures and it’s time to adjust to COVID as a fact of normal life.

Sharon McKeeman, founder of the group Let Them Breathe, said she believes the state is prolonging the school mask mandate to keep up a facade to maintain its COVID emergency order to ultimately avoid triggering negotiations with unions over a change in working conditions.

“There was no state of emergency at the Super Bowl [on Feb. 13 in Inglewood],” she said. “This all comes down to corruption, power and money, when it should be about education and what is best for our children.”

San Diego Unified School District teachers union President Kisha Borden said policymakers should think differently about masking in schools vs. other public places such as grocery stores, and that local coronavirus case and hospitalization rates should be taken into account.

“It’s important to look at local conditions,” Borden said.

California Teachers Association President Toby Boyd said he supports waiting before changing the school mask mandate to allow time to gather more local information and make “science-based decisions” that consider equity.

Ghaly said “this is not a decision that we make lightly or in a hasty way. We are taking a little bit more time to consider the information [and] work with our partners across the state to make sure when the move is made that we are ... doing it successfully.”

Several local health professionals said it’s too early to get rid of indoor masking — in schools or any other place — and that schools should wait until coronavirus case rates fall much lower.

Case rates are declining but are “still incredibly high,” said Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an assistant professor of public health at UC San Diego.

“I don’t think it makes sense to remove one of our best strategies for risk mitigation when we are in the middle of an enormous wave,” she said.

Fielding-Miller suggested that because the virus appears to have a seasonal pattern, with surges around the holidays, it makes sense to consider pausing mask mandates during the late spring and early summer, when cases drop significantly, and reinstating them when cases surge again.

If school mask requirements go away, “we also need to talk about what we are going to put in place in their stead,” Fielding-Miller said. COVID vaccinations are important, she said, but only 38 percent of children ages 5-11 are vaccinated in San Diego County.

Dr. Howard Taras, a UCSD pediatrician who works with districts including San Diego Unified, said he would advise districts to consider several factors before making indoor masks optional.

“Masks for all make sense until community case rates are extremely low,” at one or two per 100,000 people, Taras said. That likely won’t happen until after spring, he said.

Taras added that he has “not seen any convincing studies” showing scientific evidence that mask mandates have caused children significant mental, emotional or academic harm.

Dr. Mark Sawyer, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the UCSD School of Medicine, said it’s possible that wearing masks interferes with students learning socialization skills at school. But the other side of that question, he said, is whether students’ education and socialization would be disrupted more by student and teacher absences due to increased COVID spread.

Sawyer said he thinks coronavirus cases should achieve a stable and low baseline, at least as low as before Omicron, before easing up on masks. ◆


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