California schools and childcare facilities no longer have to require masks indoors after March 11, state officials announced Monday, although masks are still “highly recommended.”
The announcement does not necessarily mean that all San Diego County students will be able to ditch masks immediately after that date, however. Schools can continue to require masks if they choose.
San Diego Unified will not consider changing its indoor mask requirement until the county no longer has high levels of COVID according to federal COVID guidelines, said School Board Trustee Richard Barrera Monday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that in counties with high COVID levels, everyone should continue to wear masks in public indoor spaces such as schools, hospitals, and public transportation, regardless of vaccination status.
The district has consulted a panel of UC San Diego scientific experts, which advised the district to wait until the county moves out of the “high level” category before considering relaxing its mask requirement, Barrera said.
Other local school district leaders said Monday they will make masks optional for students as soon as they can.
Within an hour of the state’s announcement, Carlsbad Unified told families Monday that it will no longer require masks for students starting Monday, March 14.
La Mesa-Spring Valley Superintendent David Feliciano said masks will be optional for students as soon as the state mandate lifts.
Rancho Santa Fe, a small district in North County, already decided to make masks optional for students starting last week, in defiance of the state’s mandate.
The lifting of the mask mandate will immediately affect students after March 11, but the immediate impact is less clear for school employees, partly because they fall under the jurisdiction of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. However, state health officials said they are lifting the mask mandate with students and staff in mind.
Superintendents and school board members at several districts — including Alpine, Carlsbad, Del Mar, Poway and San Marcos — have publicly chided the state in recent weeks for taking this long to relax the school mask mandate. They have noted that some parents and students say masks have harmed kids’ social development and mental health.
Those students and parents are in the minority in California, according to a poll conducted this month by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. About 65 percent of California voters and 61 percent of parents of school-age students support school mask mandates for students and staff, the poll found.
While mask opponents are the minority, they have put significant pressure on school and state leaders to stop requiring masks. Some students have refused to wear masks at school and, when school leaders have refused to admit or have removed mask-less children from classrooms, some of their parents have taken to social media to protest.
The state’s announcement Monday raised concerns from some that it is too soon to decide when to lift the school mask mandate.
San Diego County’s COVID transmission level is currently high, according to guidelines released Friday by the CDC.
The CDC considers three factors: the number of new COVID cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days; the percent of staffed, inpatient beds in hospitals occupied by COVID patients, and the number of new COVID admissions per 100,00 people in the past seven days.
“One would think that case rates, not just dates on the calendar, would be driving this decision,” said Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician who consults with schools about COVID, in an email Monday morning.
Barrera also questioned the timing of March 11, noting that the date is close to when schools will be out for spring break.
“I would certainly question a decision to relax an indoor mask requirement two weeks before spring break, given that the pattern has been that we see an increase in COVID rates after the break,” he said.
However, California’s COVID case rate and hospitalizations have declined significantly in the past two weeks as the state continues to recover from the January Omicron surge.
The statewide average case rate has fallen from 57 cases per 100,000 people two weeks ago to below 20 per 100,000, said State Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly in a press conference. The state lists San Diego County’s rate at 21 per 100,000.
By March 11, officials expect the statewide case rate will be between five and 15 cases per 100,000.
“We’re seeing really encouraging trends,” Ghaly said, explaining why the state chose the date of March 11. “This feels like the right time.”
Because COVID transmission is falling rapidly and many people have at least some degree of protection because they’ve been vaccinated, officials are increasingly saying that extra layer of protection of a mask — though still beneficial — doesn’t necessarily need to be compulsory.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement Monday that the state continues to base its COVID policies on the latest data and science.
“Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high,” Newsom said. “We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward.”
California is still requiring that masks be worn indoors at healthcare facilities, public transportation, long-term care facilities, emergency shelters, and correctional facilities.
While the county and state calculate the average daily case rate, the CDC looks at the data on a weekly basis. It also measures if 10 percent or more of local hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Today the CDC lists San Diego County as a location with high transmission rates, though hospitalizations and new cases last week were only slightly over the threshold for a “medium” rating.