Monday marked the first day since most schools reopened in spring 2021 that students across Los Angeles County have the option to remove their masks in class — although the L.A. Unified School District is an exception.
The option to remove masks took effect based on a revised county health order and clearance from state health officials. Yet county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer strongly urges that masking continue as a prudent and valuable measure, especially because student vaccination rates are lagging: 29% of children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated.
Data indicate that children are far less susceptible to serious illness from COVID-19 and are frequently asymptomatic, but they can still pass on the infection to others of all ages.
County education officials said they are not tracking which of the region’s 80 school districts are removing mask mandates, but a spot check indicates that many are — likely the majority — including those that have had safety protocols that were among the most strict.
Districts moving to optional masking include the county’s second- and third-largest school systems — Long Beach Unified and Montebello Unified. Others include Pasadena Unified, Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified, El Rancho Unified in Pico Rivera and Las Virgenes Unified, which straddles the border with Ventura County.
Masks continue to be mandatory in Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, which is apparently bound by an agreement that gives the teachers union the right to bargain over masking rules through the end of the school year.
District officials stated clearly Friday that they would be pushing to end masking before then.
“I strongly support amending Los Angeles Unified’s previously negotiated agreements to align with current health guidance released by the State of California and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health,” Supt. Alberto Carvalho tweeted Friday evening. “Our team is working with labor partners over the weekend to reach agreements that change indoor masking in schools from required to strongly recommended. Maintaining practices that are protective, responsive and in the best interest of our students and school communities remains my top priority.”
The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, confirmed Monday that talks were ongoing over the matter.
“In response to a LAUSD request to bargain, we met with the district this past Friday afternoon for an initial discussion over their proposed changes to the current health and safety protocols in place at LAUSD schools,” the union said in a statement. “A follow-up session is scheduled for Wednesday, March 16.”
The district’s other labor groups also have wanted a say in masking policy going forward.
San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest school system, plans to end mandatory masking on April 4, when students return from spring break.
Long Beach Unified alerted parents Friday that as of Monday, masking would be optional, calling it a milestone event:
“This Sunday, March 13, 2022 is a significant day for LBUSD. It marks exactly two years since the global pandemic forced us to close our schools for what we initially thought would be a few weeks. We now know that those few weeks turned into months as we learned how to combat COVID-19 as best we could. Together we have accomplished so much in the face of difficult challenges, reopening our schools to in-person learning, and gradually working our way toward a greater sense of normalcy. Now, we take another step in a positive direction.”
Parent opinion is deeply divided over the issue of masking.
Those who have pushed hard to make masking optional include leaders of the group Let Them Breathe.
“It’s so sad that any schools would continue to implement forced masking,” said Sharon McKeeman, a San Diego County parent who leads that group. “They can’t hide behind the state anymore and open themselves up even more so to litigation if they exclude students.”
Let Them Breathe and other groups have been involved in litigation against both mandatory masking and mandatory vaccination of students against COVID-19.
To date, anti-masking litigation has been unsuccessful in California.
There also are many parents who prefer that masking requirements remain.
“The Latino parents I’ve spoken with have repeatedly expressed their support for masking indoors and outdoors when in crowded spaces,” said Evelyn Aleman, who founded the group Our Voice: Communities for Quality Education, which also strongly supports the vaccine mandate. “They tell me their children are wearing their masks in schools, and they’ve noticed that their classmates are doing the same. We believe that schools should continue to make masking mandatory.”
The move to relax school mask mandates comes as Los Angeles County, like the rest of California, has widely rescinded face-covering rules in most public places as the Omicron surge continues to ebb.
The county lifted its indoor mask order earlier this month, allowing all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to go without face coverings in most places — though individual businesses and venues can still require their use.
But while conditions have improved, health officials at the county and state level still urge masking indoors, including at K-12 schools.
“Both the state and us here at the Department of Public Health are strongly recommending indoor masking for students, children, teachers and staff regardless of vaccination status,” Health Director Ferrer said last week. “School districts in L.A. County can continue to require masking at schools and during school activities — along with any other appropriate safety protections for their school community.”
In L.A. County, newly confirmed daily coronavirus infections are a small percentage of what they were during the height of the latest wave. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized countywide has fallen to the lowest level since July.
The amount of virus circulating in the community remains significant, officials said, rating as “substantial,” according to the metrics of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The right thing still, while transmission is substantial, is to keep those masks on at schools,” Ferrer said. “So our hope is that many people will keep those masks on. It offers a layer of protection that we think is still important in schools, especially in our elementary schools where there’s so many people not yet vaccinated.”