California Health and Human Services (CHHS) Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly announced Monday that the school mask mandate would stay in place for the rest of February despite drastically falling COVID-19 cases in the state and other states ending similar mandates in the next few months.
State mandated school masking has been in place since in-person K-12 classes resumed in late 2020 and early 2021. For 2021-2022, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) followed CDC guidelines and kept masks mandatory, with a special emphasis placed on masks during the omicron surge in late 2021 and early 2022.
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However, with total cases plummeting by 75%, hitting an 8 week low on Monday, and positivity rates also falling, more and more Californians have begun questioning the need for indoor mask mandates. Last week, due to the falling numbers of COVID-19 cases, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an end to all statewide indoor mask mandates outside of some high risk areas including nursing homes starting on the 15th. However, the mandate didn’t cover schools, causing many parent groups to begin urging school boards to end it.
Many expected to hear an end date, or at least something akin to a road map to ending the school mask mandate on Monday, with Secretary Ghlay instead pushing back any chance of a mandate end until at least the end of the month.
“On February 28, we anticipate being able to share what the next period of time will look like and with some specificity, give a date when the masking requirement will move to a recommendation,” said Ghaly during his announcement on Monday, adding that multiple factors, including current case numbers, child vaccination rates, other facts, played a role in their decision. “This is not a decision that we take lightly. It’s not a decision that is a hasty one.
“Masking requirements were never put in place to be there forever. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. We are taking a little bit more time to consider the information, work with our partners across the state, to make sure when the move is made, that we are done doing it successfully and with communities empowered to continue to be safe.”
“Why isn’t it the same at schools? Because schools have been an important place for us to focus on for for some time.”
School mask mandates remain in place in CA
Even if statewide mask mandates for schools are lifted in March, which Ghaly hinted was likely, there is no guarantee that all school boards would follow. Many experts noted on Monday that some districts, like Los Angeles, would follow their county in delaying their order from the state order, similar to how LA County will still have indoor mask laws in place past Tuesday despite the state mandate being lifted.
“I think the state wants to be careful again in case of another outbreak and COVID cases still not quite where they were before omicron hit, but there is pressure from everywhere to get rid of the mask mandate in schools,” explained Phoebe Lewis, a pollster who focuses on education in Southern California, to the Globe on Monday. “Parents, students, even many teachers want it gone. The state is looking for when the risk is low again, and it’s a disagreement if we are low enough or if we’re not there yet. The debate is going to heat up for the rest of the month, and if there isn’t a return of a new strain surge, the pressure will be on the state to drop them.”
While the decision to keep the mask mandate was praised by many educators and health experts, others decried the extension on Monday.
“The decision to force students and teachers to continue wearing masks at school is not only out-of-line with science, but is hypocritical and dangerous for the education of California’s children,” noted RNC spokesperson Hallie Balch in a statement. “For two years, children have been forced to forgo a natural learning environment and have had their personal growth stymied because of out-of-touch mandates. With hundreds of pictures of celebrities and lawmakers ignoring the rules at sporting events, every Californian should be enraged that Democrats change the rules for their friends yet force children to continue to suffer.”
According to Ghaly, COVID-19 cases have gone down 75% from this time in January, with hospitalizations from that time down 40%.