Schools try to outrace COVID outbreaks
June 13, 2022
This Kaiser Health News story written by Mark Kreidler was first published May 26, 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.
One reason that schools aren’t rushing back to masking, several administrators told KHN, is that even though cases are rising, most districts follow county guidelines that tie public health precautions to either the number of COVID hospitalizations or the strain they would put on local health systems. Hospital admission rates tend to lag positive case rates by two weeks. Still, hospitalizations remain low for now, likely because of the availability of vaccines and antiviral treatments.
“We should be past mask mandates, period,” said Dr. Jeanne Noble, who directs COVID emergency response at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. She said that the virus no longer poses a significant health risk to young and vaccinated populations and that people need to adjust to living with COVID.
“I know my advice sounds scary to many, but COVID is here to stay,” Noble said. “That is the endgame.”
That can be a tough sell for some parents.
When 40 out of 100 fourth graders at Deterding Elementary in the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County contracted COVID after sharing cabins during a sleep-away field trip, the school was overwhelmed by inquiries from parents of students in other grades wondering whether the health rules at school were about to change.
The rising case rates forced the Berkeley district to make a late reconsideration — it reinstated mandatory masking in classrooms from May 23 until the end of the school year June 3.
Superintendent Brent Stephens noted in an update on the district’s website that in addition to the spiking student infection numbers, the district could find substitutes for only about half of its absent teachers. District administrators, he said, are working in classrooms to cover the shifts. The city’s chief public health officer strongly recommended the move back to mandatory masking.
“As we are not a health agency, we must rely on these experts to guide us,” Stephens wrote.
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.
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