As California relaxes its indoor masking requirements for vaccinated people following a record-breaking winter surge, the state’s top health official announced Monday that face coverings will still be required in schools for at least two more weeks.
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly made the announcement less than one day before the state’s universal mask mandate lapses, and one day after tens of thousands of people gathered for the Super Bowl in Los Angeles.
Ghaly added that the state “anticipates” dropping the school mask mandate after reevaluating the data on Feb. 28. But he said the shift would not happen immediately.
“That change is gonna 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 during a Feb. 14 press conference.
Ghaly hinted at moving toward a more localized strategy of masking requirements, allowing counties and school districts to determine their own guidelines.
Some parents, though not all, have been vocal in their opposition toward children wearing masks in schools, citing children’s lower chances of getting extremely sick or dying from COVID-19.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Ghaly have been especially criticized over their response to schools in the pandemic. California schools were among the last to reopen last spring after being shuttered for a full year. Last year, the state announced that it would mandate masks for educators and students for the 2021-2022 school year, a policy that exceeded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations at the time.
The CDC, however, would later reverse its guidance amid the delta surge, recommending everyone in K-12 schools wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination.
The CDC still recommends students and educators alike wear masks. A recent CDC report found wearing a cloth mask lowered a person’s chances of catching COVID-19 by 56%. Respirators including KN95 masks were 83% effective.
Ghaly also defended the school mask requirements, saying that while California has 12% of the nation’s public school students, it has accounted for less than 1% of pandemic-related school closures nationwide.
E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, a union that represents more than 300,000 teachers across the state, wrote in a statement that the union supports the state’s decision to hold off on making any masking changes until the end of the month.
“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,” Boyd wrote. “CTA supports local decisions that prioritize the safety of our communities. We know that masking, strong testing programs and having good school ventilation systems in place have been key to ensuring the stability of in-person teaching and learning.”
Last week, the Roseville Joint Union High School District voted to lift its own mask mandate ahead of the state’s Feb. 15 date.
Ghaly said regardless of the district’s decision, masks are still required for all California public schools and districts cannot lift mandates ahead of the state.
He added that the state is moving in the right direction, and out of the most recent surge. 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%.
After Feb. 15, the state’s universal mask mandate will end, but the state still “strongly recommends” people use them regardless of vaccination status. Meanwhile, for unvaccinated people, masks will still be required everywhere indoors.
In addition to schools, people will still need to wear masks in health care facilities, long-term care facilities, and jails and prisons.
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