California changes course on school masks, will let individual districts enforce mandate
After initially telling schools they must send students home if they refuse to wear masks indoors, California public health officials abruptly changed course, saying individual districts will decide the specifics of how they’ll enforce the mask mandate.
“Mask enforcement will continue to be handled by local schools as the state recognizes the unique needs of each district and child,” California Department of Public Health officials said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
While California has lifted mask mandates in most public places, the rules for schools remain more stringent. Last week, officials said even fully vaccinated students and staff must continue to wear masks indoors at all times in order to attend school in person.
California officials released details of the new rules Monday afternoon, including a requirement that schools “must exclude students from campus if they are not exempt from wearing a face covering under (the rules) and refuse to wear one provided by the school.”
But by Monday night the “must exclude” element of that rule was removed. What remains, however, is a mask mandate. How school districts will enforce it, that’s up to them.
Across Southern California, school districts are reviewing local, state and federal guidelines as teachers plan to welcome back students to campuses this fall.
“We are quickly reviewing all guidance to see what changes would be made as we move forward. I know we are also waiting for the county to share their recommendations and guidance as well,” said Anahi Velasco, spokeswoman for the Moreno Valley Unified School District in Riverside County,
“We do not currently document which employees or students are vaccinated. So, we will continue to ask that all students and staff wear a face mask when indoors, unless there’s an exemption,” Velasco said.
At Santa Ana Unified, one of Orange County’s largest districts, Monday’s state guidelines changed so quickly that district officials didn’t even get a chance to discuss the now nixed idea of barring students if they refuse to wear masks, said spokesman Fermin Leal.
“We hadn’t reacted to that mandate to send kids home because we didn’t have a chance to review it,” Leal said. “Because this is changing from day to day, most districts are still reviewing the guidance.”
Others awaiting more specific details Tuesday include Long Beach Unified, where spokesman Chris Eftychiou said: “We’re committed to full-time, in-person instruction when the new semester begins.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District did not immediately comment on Monday’s statements, but the district recently approved a contract amendment with the United Teachers Los Angeles union that requires mask-wearing.
Katie Braude, founder and CEO of Speak Up, an L.A.-based parent advocacy organization, said many families are hesitant to send their children back to school because of ongoing health risks, and that masks remain an important safety measure.
“This is especially true as the delta variant spreads and cases start to increase again,” Braude said. “We can’t forget that all kids under 12 remain unvaccinated and unprotected, and some kids have health issues that prevent them from getting the vaccines.
“The most important thing is to get all of these kids safely back in school,” Braude added. “We can revisit some of these rules once the vaccine is universally available to all kids.”
Monday’s mask requirement and its now nixed enforcement reignited criticism of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is the subject of a recall election in September.
The California Department of Public Health “put out updated guidance to ensure schools can continue enforcing the mask requirement as they have been doing for the past year,” Newsom spokesman Alex Stack said.
Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association, said the updated rule “is a huge difference in terms of how districts would operate and how the public is going to receive this guidance.”
The rules could also force districts into some tough decisions. All California schools are required to resume in-person instruction when the school year starts. But a law Newsom signed last week requires districts to let students complete their work at home if their parents or guardians believe attending school in person will put their child’s health at risk.
Likewise, the new rules also require districts to let a student complete their work at home if that student is barred from attending school because he or she refuses to wear a mask.
“If you have a district that chooses to take a harder line on masking and a subset of parents that doesn’t want to comply, the school is obligated to provide independent study in a really robust way that asks more of the district than has been done in the past,” Flint said.
At Santa Ana Unified, where students stayed in distance learning for the entire past academic year, officials plan to work with families who don’t want their children to wear face coverings. Those students will be offered online schooling and other alternatives, such as independent study, small group learning or even one-on-one learning, depending on grade level and circumstances, Leal said.
“We wouldn’t turn the student away,” Leal said. “And we wouldn’t want students in classrooms not wearing masks.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said teachers and students who are fully vaccinated don’t have to wear masks indoors but recommended that students and staff stay at least 3 feet apart to reduce the spread of a disease that is primarily transmitted through the air.
California officials were worried that imposing social distancing would make it harder for some schools to accommodate all students. So they made a choice: They won’t require physical distancing in exchange for everyone wearing masks. The state plans to review the rules and possibly change them by Nov. 1.
Newsom was criticized by some for not moving more quickly to return students to classrooms during the last school year. Many districts, including Los Angeles, with more than 550,000 K-12 students, only instituted part-time, in-person instruction for the final weeks of the semester.
The mask requirement angered some parents who say children will have added stress after already having two school years upended through remote learning and missed milestones like proms, sports, concerts and graduations.
“We’re continuing to put the burden of this pandemic on our children, and it needs to stop,” said Jonathan Zachreson, a father of three and founder of the group Reopen California Schools.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, said public schools should reconsider mask requirements once hospitalization rates fall below five per 100,000 people and at least two-thirds of adults have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. While those thresholds have been met in some parts of California, Gandhi called the new rules reasonable.
She said that while eliminating the physical distancing requirement is one of the best things the state can do to get kids back in classrooms, whether to require masks is a gray area because there is so little data about the use of masks by children.
“We’ve just got to get the kids back and then we can sort out those kinds of details,” Gandhi said.
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a clinical professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California, said the rules go too far and are not based on local data. He said it’s unreasonable “in a state of 40 million people, just to say everyone has to be the same.”
“I think they’d have better trust and credibility with Californians if they were a little more nuanced and smarter about it,” he said.