By David N. Young and Jeannette Andruss
Students and teachers at California’s K-12 schools are required to wear face coverings indoors regardless of their vaccination status, according to guidance from the California Department of Public Health issued this week.
In a revision of its guidance issued on July 12, the CDPH specified that “schools must develop and implement local protocols to enforce the mask requirements” including deciding what “alternative educational opportunities” would be offered to students “who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.”
“Masking is a simple and effective intervention that does not interfere with offering full in-person instruction. At the outset of the new year, students should be able to walk into school without worrying about whether they will feel different or singled out for being vaccinated or unvaccinated – treating all kids the same will support a calm and supportive school environment,” California Health & Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a press release.
California’s indoor mask mandate for schools goes further than the July 9 recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which state “safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.”
Based on the CDC guidelines, vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in classrooms. However, CDC also recommends masking in classrooms continue for people age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated. CDC notes it is “especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies” like indoor masking if physically distancing 3 feet between students is not possible.
CDPH explained in a press release that in order to achieve its goal of offering safe and full in-person instruction to all students, California could not adhere to the 3 foot distancing rule.
“In California, the surest path to safe and full in-person instruction at the outset of the school year, as well as minimizing missed school days in an ongoing basis, is a strong emphasis on the following: vaccination for all eligible individuals to get COVID-19 rates down throughout the community; universal masking in schools, which enables no minimum physical distancing, allowing all students access to full in-person learning, and more targeted quarantine practices, keeping students in school; and access to a robust COVID-19 testing program as an available additional safety layer,” reads the updated CDPH guidance. Other safety layers include: ventilation, testing, and screening measures.”
The CDPH said it plans to revisit and revise school guidance as necessary and will determine no later than November 1, 2021 “whether to update mask requirements or recommendations.”
Reaction in Los Al Unified
Los Alamitos Unified School Board President Marlys Davidson said “speaking for myself, I think the decision by the state to require staff and students to wear masks when our schools reopen may be a rush to judgment.”
Davidson said she has not had time to speak in detail with other board members or District Superintendent Dr. Andrew Pulver, but said in her own opinion, she hopes local districts will be given some flexibility and input on keeping students safe.
She noted that last August, LAUSD “followed every guideline and mandate in order to open to a hybrid form of learning on every campus and to keep students and staff healthy and safe,” suggesting school districts have a repository of knowledge on pandemic response. Students and staff were required to wear masks on LAUSD campuses last year.
As a former teacher with 25 years of experience, Davidson also hopes the COVID-19 precaution conversations to weigh the danger of COVID-19 to children with other issues. “Isn’t is wise to consider more than the virus when focusing on the well-being of our children? Masks can create barriers to the engagement of students and to their connectedness with their teacher and peers. Mental health and learning loss need to be high on the list of determinants,” she said.
Mental health is also a concern of LAUSD parent Matthew Simmons. In a phone interview on Sunday, he said he wants masks to be optional for students when most return to school on August 16.
He says masks inhibit communication which he believes is more harmful to children than the risk of catching COVID-19. “These kids are getting disconnected from other people because they are not able to see other people’s emotions,” Simmons said. Simmons said Los Al Unified did a “phenomenal job” getting kids back for in-person learning in the hybrid format last academic year. He admitted he was unsure about a return to campus a year ago but this week remarked, “in hindsight, it turned out to be the best thing for my kids’ mental health.”
LAUSD parents Nathan and Jamie Dusek are not ready to ditch the mask rule.
“I am super happy they are keeping mask mandates for schools in California,” Jamie wrote in a text message. “I was worried,” she added, pointing to the fact that her kids are too young to be vaccinated. Another concern of hers is that unmasked older students could spread the virus to their younger siblings at home putting their unvaccinated classmates – her kids – at risk.
Next month the Dusek’s two children will be on campus at their LAUSD elementary school after their oldest was enrolled in LosAl@Home, the virtual learning pathway, last year. “I’m excited to send both [children] back,” Nathan wrote. He said based on the very few cases of COVID at their campus, school seemed to be the safest place during the pandemic because of measures like mask wearing.
One parent in an LAUSD Facebook group wrote requiring masks may be the only way her child could safely be on campus due to a rare lung disorder.
“For those expressing frustration at this [mask] mandate, please consider yourselves lucky that you have children that are not health compromised,” the parent commented.
Protecting immunocompromised people is one reason to keep mask mandates says LAUSD parent and pediatrician Lori Livingston.
“If they are unvaccinated, they should be wearing a mask indoors,” she said in a phone interview on Sunday. She said masks are one of the most effective ways to reduce virus transmission. She also said health officials are still studying the newer, more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.
Dr. Livingston said she was “surprised” the State of California went further than CDC recommendations but added she is “happy to hear that.” She said it aligns with the American Academy of Pediatrics which advises mask wearing should continue inside classrooms until the COVID-19 vaccine is available for children and “uptake in the pediatric population is high enough to prevent transmission” of the novel coronavirus.
Pfizer’s COVID vaccine is already approved for people 12 and older. It expects to ask for emergency approval from the FDA for its vaccine to be given to children ages 5 to 11 by October.
More than 4 million COVID cases and at least 344 COVID deaths have been recorded among children in the U.S. since the pandemic began, according to AAP data from July 8. “At this time, it still appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is rare among children,” AAP writes on its website but adds “there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.”