Students wearing masks at Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

California lifts school mask mandate after March 11; still ‘highly recommended’ in Santa Cruz County

After Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the relaxing of mask mandates for K-12 schools after March 11, Santa Cruz County schools said they would follow suit, with masks no longer required but “highly recommended” after that date amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indoor masking will no longer be mandatory at California schools and childcare facilities after March 11, state officials announced Monday, a long-debated and much-anticipated move that comes as the state continues its steady emergence from the Omicron wave of COVID-19.

In a letter to the community from the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, County Superintendent Faris Sabbah and district superintendents said they would follow suit, with masks not required after March 11 — a week from Friday — but still “highly recommended” for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status.

Though Monday’s announcement is just the latest move to loosen California’s formerly strict face-covering policies, it may wind up being the most significant in the near term — it could allow potentially millions of K-12 schoolchildren to go maskless in the classroom for the first time in months. And, in another major move, California officials said masks will be strongly recommended, but no longer required, for unvaccinated individuals in most indoor settings starting Tuesday.

How much of an impact the state’s action will make remains to be seen. Local officials retain the option of keeping mask rules in place if they think doing so is warranted, and more than 1,000 school districts face making their own decisions on when to take that step — contingent on county health orders and labor agreements.

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In their letter, Sabbah and district superintendents noted that Santa Cruz County public schools will continue to pay close attention to both local infection data and guidance from the California Department of Public Health.

“It is our expectation that CDPH will be establishing metrics that may include COVID19 positivity rates, incidents of in-school transmission, school outbreaks, hospitalization capacity, and other indicators,” the letter reads. “Working in conjunction with local public health officials, we will carefully monitor these metrics to determine if masking or other mitigation strategies need to be reestablished to protect our school community. We also plan on continuing our robust testing effort in all of our schools.”

Whether to send kids to school without masks is as much a matter of personal beliefs as it is policy. While heated online discourse and in-person protests at campuses and school board meetings have perhaps painted the picture that California parents are universally ready to move away from mandatory masking, the reality is less clear, according to the findings of an early February poll conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by the L.A. Times.

In that poll of nearly 9,000 California voters, nearly two-thirds, including a majority of parents, were supportive of mask mandates in K-12 schools.

It’s a situation the Santa Cruz County superintendents acknowledged in their letter.

“We recognize that every household has had a different experience through the pandemic. Everyone has a different threshold of comfort, different health concerns, and a different weight of worry,” they wrote. “Once masking is optional in our schools, we ask that you be patient with your neighbors and respectful of their masking decisions as we continue to seek the safe management of this situation together.”

Nevertheless, the decision to move from required to recommended masking underscores the progress California has made in turning the tide of the latest COVID-19 wave — and illustrates a wider evolution in the state’s thinking as the pandemic shifts from a constant emergency to a less-disruptive burden that can be more realistically managed.

“California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we’ve learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement Monday. “Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high. 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.”

California is something of an outlier in the United States on school masking mandates, according to a tracker maintained by Burbio, a media company that aggregates data.

Prior to Monday’s announcement, California and Hawaii were alone in maintaining indoor mask mandates at schools. In five other states, a relaxing of mask mandates had not yet taken effect, including Washington and Oregon, whose governors joined Newsom on Monday in announcing updated masking rules.

The poll suggests broad public support for policies aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus in schools, even as...

The majority of states provide local officials flexibility in making decisions on school masking. Three states have successfully banned school-based mandates while eight others are in legal limbo over the issue.

At least a few California school districts have recently opted to defy the state’s existing masking policy. State officials have not appeared eager to respond with sanctions, but insurance carriers have notified local officials that they could assume costly legal risks if their school systems are out of compliance with state rules.

Lisa Gardiner, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, denied the accusation from some parents that teachers unions delayed the lifting of the mask mandate.

“The Governor’s office engaged all school stakeholders in the conversation around a safe transition for schools-management and labor,” Gardiner wrote in a text message to CalMatters on Monday. “Our approach has always been grounded in science. Those who are trying to vilify educators right now want this to be about politics rather than safety and science.”

CTA president E. Toby Boyd said he supports the “optimism of Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDPH officials that declining COVID-19 cases hospitalizations allow us to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.” But Boyd also acknowledged that many students might not feel ready to unmask at school.

Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine, says it’s too early to lift the mask mandate, especially because it remains unclear what thresholds the state hopes to reach by March 12.

“I can only say that the COVID rates are too high now,” he said. “But I’m not in favor of a future in which kids always go to school with masks.”

Masks have long been the most visible hallmark of California’s pandemic response, and widespread requirements to don them in indoor or crowded settings have been both a source of comfort for the COVID-cautious and a target of fierce derision by critics.

But in an environment in which coronavirus transmission is falling rapidly and so many people have at least some degree of protection because they’ve been vaccinated, officials are increasingly saying that extra layer of protection — though still beneficial — doesn’t necessarily need to be compulsory.

Face coverings will still be required for everyone in certain settings identified by the state or federal government — such as on public transportation or in health care settings, correctional facilities, and emergency or homeless shelters.

State officials note that local health jurisdictions will still be able to keep more restrictive rules on their books. But how many ultimately choose to do so remains an open question.

Teacher Suzanne Rose in her fourth grade classroom at MacQuiddy Elementary in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

California’s move earlier this month to lift a universal indoor face covering mandate put in place to thwart the charge of Omicron was widely adopted. Only a handful of counties and cities chose not to immediately follow the state’s lead in allowing vaccinated people to go maskless in indoor public settings.

The holdouts included Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties, respectively the most populous regions of Northern and Southern California. Though Santa Clara is poised to relax its indoor masking rules as soon as Wednesday, L.A. County could still be weeks away from doing the same.

L.A. County health officials initially said they would lift the local requirement after the region reached “moderate transmission” as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and remained there for seven days. That would mean recording fewer than 730 new coronavirus cases a day over a weekly period.

Though the state of California isn’t aiming to revisit its guidance on masks in schools until next week, the federal...

But the CDC on Friday relaxed its own guidance as to when members of the public should wear masks in indoor public settings, shifting away from a system centered on coronavirus case and testing positivity rates to a set of criteria that also takes into account COVID-19’s impact on hospitals.

According to information released by the CDC, the shift to using hospitalization-based metrics as well as case rates is reflective of the higher levels of community immunity to COVID-19 — particularly given the widespread administration of vaccinations and the availability of boosters.

“Community measures should focus on minimizing the impact of severe COVID-19 illness on health and society,” the CDC said in a slide presentation, “preventing medically significant illness, minimizing burden on the health care system, [and] protecting the most vulnerable through vaccines, therapeutics and COVID-19 prevention.”

But the CDC suggested that health officials use local data — such as vaccination rates and the findings of wastewater surveillance — to help determine their own recommended prevention measures.

Some experts also continue to recommend universal masking even after the CDC’s announcement, citing the fact that the youngest children are still not eligible for the vaccination and the need to provide additional protection for immunocompromised residents.

“Although masks may no longer be required indoors in many parts of the U.S., we know that wearing a well-fitted mask is an effective way to protect ourselves and our communities, including the most vulnerable, from COVID-19 — particularly in indoor settings when physical distancing is not possible,” said Dr. Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association, in a statement.

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.