Mask requirement to be lifted in schools
New guidance will let local jurisdictions make their own mask policies after March 11
March 7, 2022
As long as their local jurisdiction allows it, students can come to school without a face mask beginning Monday, March 14, under new state guidance announced last week.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced Friday, March 11, as the day the statewide masking requirement for all K-12 students will expire. After that date, masking will be “strongly recommended” for all students, regardless of their vaccination status.
During a call with reporters the day of the announcement on Feb. 28, California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said local health departments and school boards could continue to require masking based on local COVID conditions.
The change in California Department of Public Health guidance gives districts two weeks to plan for possible changes in mask policies.
ACSA Senior Director of Governmental Relations Edgar Zazueta, Ed.D., said he appreciated the “delicate balance” being struck by the administration.
“We get that in some communities, there is a thought that even tomorrow is hard to continue the mask mandate,” Zazueta said during the ACSA Legislative Lunch Break, which aired the same day as the announcement. “I think the rationale on why to wait … there’s subsequent things that need to be ironed out.”
One of them is school employee mask guidance, which is set by Cal/OSHA. On the Legislative Lunch Break, ACSA Advocate Dorothy Johnson said Cal/OSHA guidance was forthcoming with the intent to “more closely align their rules” with CDPH’s new guidance.
Zazueta said the announcement will shift masking decisions to the local level.
“This can look different in different communities,” he said, citing districts such as Los Angeles USD that have collective bargaining agreements to keep mask mandates through the end of the school year. “In order for districts to move … they would have to go back to the bargaining table and renegotiate that.”
A handful of districts have jumped ahead of the state guidance by changing their masking policies before the new state guidelines take effect.
Since California’s indoor mask mandate for vaccinated individuals ended on Feb. 15, several school boards have voted to effectively make masking optional, including Roseville Joint Union HSD, El Dorado Union HSD, Rescue Union School District, Nevada Joint Union HSD and others, according to published reports. Districts’ new policy states that they would require masks, but no longer exclude students who refuse a mask from any school facility, classroom or activity.
Some districts that have chosen not to enforce mask mandates have been contacted by their insurers and warned that they could lose their coverage because of their actions, according to published reports.
In a Feb. 15 news release announcing the change in mask protocols, El Dorado Union HSD said, “We will continue to do our best to comply with the law. Our school liability carriers all warn us that if we take explicit action to defy State guidance we will be held liable and accountable for any such decisions and in a very litigious society we have no legal protection. Our liability carriers will not be held accountable for our willful defiance of the California Department of Public Health.”
Districts that have dropped mask requirements have also drawn anger from unions that said districts are not honoring collective bargaining agreements. At Nevada Joint Union HSD, classes had to be canceled Feb. 24 and 25 after teachers refused to report to work due to the relaxed masking of students, according to reports.
On the call with reporters, Ghaly defended stricter masking policies for children in schools than in other in-person settings over the next two weeks, calling them “essential places” that must remain open to provide vital services. He also said the extra time would allow COVID rates to lower even further.
“We have all along treated schools a little bit differently,” he said. “California has said from the beginning keeping schools safe is one of our key strategies.”
Ghaly called this “the right moment” to remove the requirement, citing COVID cases and pediatric hospitalizations that have dropped 66 percent and 47 percent respectively since his last press conference on Feb. 14.
While the change in mask policy is an “off ramp” where jurisdictions might consider relaxing mask requirements, Ghaly said the state remains ready to take an “on ramp” by adding mitigations if new COVID variants or surges occur.
The CDC has also updated its guidance to a three-tier system that recommends universal school masking in the highest tier. According to a CalMatters analysis, around 19 California counties would fall into that highest tier.
Ghaly also issued a reminder that no person can be prevented from wearing a mask, acknowledging the amount of “community discourse” that has surrounded masking.
“California respects the diversity of our state, respects the individual choice to continue to protect their health,” he said.
ACSA will update members on this matter as information becomes available.
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