Mask mandate to remain in place for CA schools as guidelines lift for other indoor activities

SAN FRANCISCO -- California Health and Human Services Agency Sec. Dr. Mark Ghaly announced Monday that although the indoor mask mandate will be lifted for vaccinated people on Feb. 16, it will remain in effect for schoolchildren.

The state will reassess the current mask requirement for schools on Feb. 28.

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The new recommendation will be conditioned on factors such as pediatric COVID-19 related hospitalizations, hospital admissions, test positivity rates as well as case rates.

"Today, a change isn't being made but in two weeks, confirming that the data continues to be where it is, taking the time to prepare and work with the school community and communities-at-large, we anticipate making the change," Ghaly said.

Dr. Ghaly said California has led the way in protecting K-12 students from the virus with its COVID-19 protocols and is prioritizing in person learning and keeping kids at school.

"We have 12% of the students in the country here in California schools, and we have experienced less than 1% of school closures this year." said Ghaly.

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Teachers' unions support the decision to keep the mandate in place.

The California Teachers Association said in a statement they "support the administrations to decision to pause and gather more information."

Similarly the California Federation of Teachers thinks it is too early to lift the mask mandate.

"They (teachers) just emerged from the Omicron spike, we have had a very serious staffing crisis," said Jeff Freitas, the President of CFT.

"They are exhausted as well as the students. A lot of students have been out."

Dr. Monica Gandhi, a UCSF Infectious Diseases Specialist questions if it is a fair approach for the state to keep masking school kids but lift restrictions for everyone else.

"If the state is allowing mask optional for adults that same approach should be applied for children. Using metric-based approaches with objective criteria to release mask mandates consistently across a state will increase trust in public health authorities," Gandhi said.

Dr. Gandhi says vaccinations (greater than 70%) and COVID-19 hospitalization (per day per 100,000) benchmarks have been met across most places in California and the state should have a metric that is applied fairly across populations.

Dr. Ghaly defends California's approach. "Schools are an important area to protect and support."

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He says input from different community groups such as teachers, staff and public health leaders have been considered in keeping the mask mandate for schools.

Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health says the state got it right.

"Given the trajectory of the number of cases, the decrease in hospitalizations, we are in a terrific position right now and if that trajectory continues, in a couple of weeks the numbers are going to be so low that we can really start entertaining the idea of making some substantial changes with masking in schools,"

Dr. Swartzberg said school-age kid vaccination rates are not nearly high enough to safely lift the mask mandate for schools.

"In kids between the ages of 5 and 11 years old, only 33% are vaccinated, way below where they should be. So we don't have most of the kids protected at schools with vaccines, so how do we protect them? We protect them by driving the cases in the community so low, that there is very little likelihood that they are going to get exposed and we keep our masks on until those numbers are so low," Dr. Swartzberg said.

"We have a responsibility to make sure our students and kids are safe and they spend an awful lot of their days in school and we want that environment to be as safe as possible for them. We want to proceed very carefully in making decisions that will reduce their level of protection, so I think the decision is very prudent to see where we are in a couple of weeks," Dr. Swartzberg said.

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor in the UCSF Health Division of Infectious Diseases agrees that schools are one of the last places that the mask mandate should be lifted.

"February 28 doesn't mean we're all of a sudden going to rip off our masks but we should look at where we are before dispensing of the masks at schools."

Dr. Ghaly says falling case rates, a decrease in the spread of COVID-19, and improved hospital staffing led the state to lift the indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people.

However, he reminded the public that wearing a mask can tremendously reduce your risk of getting COVID and some masking is better than none.

According to data, the state's 7-day case rate is down more than 75 percent over that past month and hospitalizations have dropped nearly 41 percent since Jan. 14.

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"We've always talked about how we need to keep the hospital system well supported and protected so they can take care of all the needs of Californians. And this gives us a little bit more confidence that that's where we're heading," said Dr. Ghaly.

Dr. Ghaly also mentioned that although omicron's hospitalization rates were much lower than other variants, he cautions this might not always be the case with other strains of COVID-19.

He also stressed the best protection against COVID-19 is getting vaccinated and boosted.

"We've seen people who have gotten vaccinated also get infected. Thankfully, they don't get nearly as sick and same risk of having a bad outcome," said Dr. Ghaly.

After Feb. 15, unvaccinated people still will be required to be masked indoors, and everyone - vaccinated or not - will have to wear masks in higher-risk areas like public transit and nursing homes and other congregate living facilities, officials said.

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