Blue states are ditching their school mask mandates, but California is stuck as powerful teachers unions push back.
The classroom was always going to be the last stand for the mask wars in California. Schools stayed closed longer here than anywhere else in the country as teachers unions made access to vaccines a condition of their return. More recently, teachers have demanded better masks and more testing to guard against the Omicron variant.
Gov. Gavin Newsom seems ready to eliminate mask requirements in schools, as his counterparts in New Jersey, Oregon and Connecticut did this week. But Newsom cannot go where teachers unions aren’t ready, as was the case with school reopening a year ago.
“They just asked for a little bit more time, and I think that’s responsible, and I respect that,” the governor said of teachers unions at a news conference Wednesday. “But we are also in a date with destiny. We recognize that we want to turn the page on the status quo.”
Newsom is not the only one still requiring masks in schools; New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is maintaining a similar mandate, as is Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, though those states are among a dwindling number.
Democrats again face an internal struggle — caught between evidence that high-quality masks reduce transmission, parental concerns that children have lost a sense of normalcy and pandemic fatigue among all involved. President Joe Biden is trying to figure out next steps as his top health advisers are still urging schools to maintain mask requirements while Democratic governors are abandoning that approach.
Newsom has promised to release a plan for easing school masking rules. But he also pointed to the relatively low vaccination rates for children under 12 as the sticking point in labor negotiations.
If the new policy is tied to higher vaccine uptake, those changes could be slow to arrive.
So far, about 33 percent of kids ages 5 to 11 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the latest state figures, compared to 89 percent of Californians 18 and older. School districts in Los Angeles and Sacramento put their vaccine mandates on hold instead of sending large numbers of unvaccinated students back into remote learning.
California’s top priority is to keep schools open, state epidemiologist Erica Pan said — and that may mean sticking with masks even as the requirements for California businesses expire next week.
“Frankly, schools have been an extremely safe place to be, especially with masks,” Pan said Tuesday during a webinar with other medical professionals hosted by the California Medical Association.
Pan cited guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics that supports universal school masking, and said she knew of no data showing that masking children causes them physiological, developmental or social harm. Public health experts generally support mask-wearing, while some studies show the benefit to be largely dependent on the type and fit of the mask.
The California Teachers Association, which has more than 300,000 members, declined to comment on its discussions with the Newsom administration. The state’s second-largest teachers union, the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers, says any end to mask restrictions must have sufficient justification beyond political reasons.
“We support developing a plan for transitioning away from masking in schools — an off-ramp — that is based on science and not politics,” CFT President Jeff Freitas said in a statement.
Parents are divided on the subject. Some are increasingly frustrated with what they see as needless and harmful restrictions and argue masking should be optional; some high school students have walked out of class in protest of the rules. But others worry their children could put vulnerable relatives at risk or have their schooling disrupted yet again if they are exposed to the virus — even if they are vaccinated.
“I think it’s too early,” said Mindy Reed, the mother of a 17-year-old student in the small Central Coast town of Cambria about lifting masking rules in classrooms. “The mask mandate shouldn’t require kids to wear the masks outside, but I think in the classrooms we still need to protect them.”
The masking debate has boiled over in the Bay Area, where some school districts have one-upped the state’s rules by having children mask outdoors or wear medical masks instead of cloth coverings.
On Wednesday, more than 450 San Francisco parents signed onto a letter to Mayor London Breed urging optional masks for school kids, citing their relatively low risk of serious infection.
Meanwhile, school districts are bracing for impact. Kevin Gordon, a prominent education lobbyist, said he has been flooded with calls from school leaders up and down the state who are worried about backlash as the state eases the mandate in other settings, but not schools.
“We are having districts communicate to the governor and lawmakers the need to make sure schools are not forced to stay masked while the rest of the community ends up not being masked,” Gordon said.
Some teachers agree that the mandate has lasted too long.
“I’m ready to take the mask off now,” said Jason Avicolli, a social studies teacher at Las Lomas High School in the Bay Area city of Walnut Creek who argues universal masking has caused “detrimental mental effects, psychological, social and emotional damage.”
Ernesto Falcon, a Bay Area parent who has been outspoken about school reopenings and mask mandates, said it seems public officials are using masks to assuage fears instead of clearly communicating evidence suggesting they aren’t needed.
“The government’s job and the public school system’s job is to say, ‘Well, that’s not necessary for safety,’” Falcon said. “Instead they did the opposite, of ‘Oh my gosh, these parents are scared, let’s just require it as well.’”
Yet even as the state eyes the masking exits, some districts are moving in the other direction.
The United Teachers of Richmond just last week clinched an agreement with the West Contra Costa Unified School District requiring kids to wear medical masks and a series of tests for students and staff after a positive case in a classroom.
The union president, Marissa Glidden, said in an email that local high school students “led the advocacy for better masks at schools,” and that the upgrade requirement stemmed from public health guidance. When asked about an endpoint for those measures, Glidden said the union would discuss that with the district if county and state recommendations changed.
“Right now,” Glidden wrote, “the state has shared they will continue the school mask mandate beyond February 15th.”