In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state officials said today that the state mask mandate for schools will end, but local jurisdictions are free to impose their own requirements.

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All students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, will no longer be required to wear a mask indoors at schools and child care facilities starting March 12. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom and California state health officials issued the order on Monday, nearly a month after they lifted the mandate for vaccinated people gathering in restaurants and other indoor spaces.

“This feels like the right time,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California secretary of Health and Human Services. “I’ve been pleased with how the data has come down, and it is the right time to transition from the requirement to a strong recommendation.”

Ghaly said on Feb. 14 that he would provide updated guidance for schools as early as Monday, depending on the public health data. In the past two weeks COVID-19 case rates dropped by two-thirds and hospitalizations, both adult and pediatric, were cut in half.

Ghaly also said he expects rates to decline further during these final two weeks of the school mask mandate. By March 12, California’s COVID-19 metrics should resemble those in states like New York and Connecticut that have already started allowing students and school staff to unmask indoors. California parents, however, say they want the mask mandate gone now.

“I think the masks should be optional tomorrow on March 1st,” said Megan Bacigalupi, an Oakland parent who leads the group CA Parent Power. “I don’t understand the rationale of a further delay of another two weeks.”

Ending the mask mandate in schools comes almost exactly two years after the state first shut down schools in many districts in March 2020. Parents and students across California have been demanding the step be taken sooner. A handful of districts across California already lifted their mask mandates. 

“It seems like politics and the (California Teachers Association) are holding up my son’s chance of getting back to a normal school year,” said Scott Davison, a San Diego County parent. “I’m frustrated. I should be happier, but we’ve been fighting for months.”

But a recent poll found that 61% of parents with school-age children support school mask mandates. Lisa Gardiner, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, denied the accusation from some parents that teachers unions delayed the lifting of the mask mandate.

“The Governor’s office engaged all school stakeholders in the conversation around a safe transition for schools-management and labor,” Gardiner wrote in a text message on Monday. “Our approach has always been grounded in science. Those who are trying to vilify educators right now want this to be about politics rather than safety and science.”

CTA president E. Toby Boyd said he supports the “optimism of Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDPH officials that declining COVID-19 cases hospitalizations allow us to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.” But Boyd also acknowledged that many students might not feel ready to unmask at school.

Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine, says it’s too early to lift the mask mandate, especially because it remains unclear what thresholds the state hopes to reach by March 12.

“I can only say that the COVID rates are too high now,” he said. “But I’m not in favor of a future in which kids always go to school with masks.”

The state’s decision and timeline for making masks optional in schools arrives just days after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised federal guidance on masking in schools. CDC experts said counties showing positive trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates do not need to require masking in most indoor spaces, including schools.

“I think California’s approach is smarter to treat schools differently because students for the time being have much lower vaccination rates than other demographics,” Noymer said.

In Monday’s announcement, state officials said local school districts will be able to have stricter masking rules than the state order. 

San Diego Unified, the second largest district in the state, will continue enforcing its indoor mask mandate, according to school board president Richard Barrera. 

“San Diego County is still in the high-risk tier, even under the CDC’s new system,” Barrera said. “When we move into the moderate-risk tier, then we’ll reassess.”

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said it would align with the state rules after March 11, but Los Angeles Unified officials declined to comment on whether it would have stricter rules. The state’s largest district dropped its outdoor mask mandate just last week.

Officials at Oakland Unified, who still require their students to mask outdoors, said they would decide on their own rules after reviewing how their county health department revises its own rules.

San Francisco Unified will be keeping its indoor mask mandate, according to a statement released on Monday.

State officials also said on Monday that the indoor mask mandate for unvaccinated adults will be lifted starting March 1. Masks will still be required in “high transmission settings” like public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

For the record: The feature caption on this story has been revised to identify Tanya Ortiz Franklin as a school board member. The original caption, supplied by Reuters, misidentified her as a teacher.

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Joe reports on the students, teachers and lawmakers who shape California's public schools. Before joining CalMatters in 2021, he was the education reporter at KPBS, the public radio station in San Diego....