Gov. Gavin Newsom delayed a closely watched decision on lifting California’s school mask mandate Monday, even as other Democratic governors around the country have dropped them in recent weeks.
While many Californians will be able to remove masks in most indoor settings starting Wednesday, schoolchildren and teachers will have to wait. Newsom had flagged Monday as the day to watch for a revision regarding school masking rules, then sent the state’s top health official to deliver the message of a delay.
“The message today, which I hope is clear, is today a change isn’t being made,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly told reporters Monday, adding that his department will reassess on Feb. 28 whether the rule should change.
“This is not a decision we take lightly, it is not a decision that is a hasty one,” Ghaly said, noting that California’s vaccination rates for children are still low and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends masks in schools.
The non-announcement comes just before California prepares to lift its mask mandate for most indoor settings for vaccinated people, a rule that will sunset Tuesday. As of Wednesday, however, unvaccinated people will still be required to be masked indoors, and everyone — vaccinated or not — will have to wear masks in higher-risk settings like public transit and nursing homes. Local governments can continue their own indoor mask requirements, as Los Angeles County health officials announced they would.
It also comes a week after a half dozen other states controlled by Democrats, including Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon, announced plans to end statewide school mask mandates by the end of February or March. They are among a dozen states with such mandates for schools, which have become a lightning rod in districts nationwide.
Newsom has come under pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the mandates. He indicated last week that he was ready to scrap masking rules at schools but that teachers unions were not.
“They just asked for a little bit more time and I think that’s responsible and I respect that,” Newsom told a news conference last week. “But we also have a date with destiny. We recognize that we want to turn the page on the status quo.”
Ghaly said that even though California isn’t quite ready to drop the rules, the state is heading in the right direction, noting that COVID-19 cases have dropped by more than 75% since mid-January. He declined to answer repeated questions on what role teachers unions played in Monday’s decision.
But the teachers’ stance was made clear minutes after Ghaly finished speaking, when the powerful California Teachers Association issued a statement praising the “cautious approach to masking.”
“We know that masking, strong testing programs and having good school ventilation systems in place have been key to ensuring the stability of in-person learning,” the statement from CTA President E. Toby Boyd said, adding that changes “will disrupt and destabilize school communities.”
Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said the state’s delay made good sense. He pointed to the markedly higher rates of COVID-19 infection in Black and Brown communities, and the need to ensure kids in those areas are safe at school.
“So we need to look at this with an equitable lens in making sure that we are providing the safest environment for everybody and especially for the underrepresented communities,” he said.
Newsom said last week that one of the sticking points in labor negotiations was the relatively low vaccination rates for children under 12.
Only 28% of 5 to 11-year-olds in California are fully vaccinated, according to the latest state figures, compared to 89% of residents 18 and older.
“The risk is much slower to have severe disease in children than in, say, a 65-year-old adult, that’s for sure,” said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Stanford University. “But it doesn’t mean that that child’s life is not as valuable. They should be protected because the risk is still there. We put helmets on kids and put them in seatbelts — risks that are far lower of having a bad outcome.“
Ghaly declined to say whether lifting school mask requirements would be tied to specific metrics.
California has had some of the strictest mask and vaccination requirements in the country, with Newsom announcing last October a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all public and private schoolchildren. That mandate is not expected to take effect until July, pending full federal approval for the shots.
The school mask requirements, in place since July 2020, were key to getting the state’s powerful teachers unions to agree to reopen classrooms.
But the prolonged rules have furthered long-simmering frustrations among many parents and local officials, even in some particularly progressive districts.
“I think that this will transfer a lot of political pressure back down to districts,” said Brent Stephens, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified School District. “This is not a new pattern over the course of this pandemic. There have been many decisions left to localities to make that here in school districts we often feel are better made either at the state level or by people with better expertise in public health.”
In a number of more conservative regions, a handful of districts have begun to openly defy the state mandate.
In a suburb of Sacramento, the Roseville Joint Union High School District school board last week voted unanimously to start a “mask optional” policy.
And at Corona Norco Unified School District in Riverside County, where students and parents recently protested the school mask mandate, the district said it has set up a supervised, outdoor area where students who refuse to mask up can spend the day protesting or doing school work.
“When do we step out of this phase, because we can’t stay in it forever?” said Jason Peplinksi, superintendent of Simi Valley Unified School District in Ventura County. “And frankly, we can’t stay in it for much longer because, like I said, reasonable people are losing their patience.”
KQED’s Julia McEvoy contributed additional reporting to this post.