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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

West Coast states dump mask mandates for schools

The states will also ease mask requirements for unvaccinated residents beginning this week.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California, Oregon and Washington state will lift face covering requirements in public schools in two weeks, with the states’ Democratic governors saying Monday the continued drop in Covid-19 cases means K-12 students can safely return to school without the defining pandemic symbol.  

Beginning March 12, masks will no longer be required for schoolchildren, and the states will also loosen face covering policies for unvaccinated residents starting Tuesday. Existing mask policies will remain in effect for health care facilities, public transit and correctional facilities.

The governors say the coordinated move is predicated on declining case and hospitalization rates in the West but reiterated masks remain “strongly recommended” for all indoor activities.

“California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we’ve learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward.” 

The milestone announcement is the latest move by Newsom to roll back strict pandemic mandates and comes amid a chorus of criticism from state Republicans and parents regarding face coverings.  

Though California lifted statewide indoor mask rules two weeks ago, Newsom and state public health officials declined to drop student mandates, saying they needed time to coordinate the policy shift with school districts and teachers unions. Critics cast the move as hypocritical and some districts openly defied the order, passing resolutions allowing parents and students to make their own decisions on face coverings.

In addition to the defiance from school administrators, the governors were also pressed to ease mandates due to new pandemic guidance from the Biden administration.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened federal mask-wearing requirements, saying most Americans — including students — can ditch masks safely in most settings. The CDC cited dropping test positivity rates as well as improved access to vaccinations and treatments as reasons for the new guidelines.

“This framework moves beyond new cases and test positivity,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Feb. 25. “The intent of the community guidance is to look at severe disease, people who are coming into the hospital.”

Following nearly two years of masking rules, the trio of governors have agreed it’s time for residents to learn how to live with the stubborn virus without strict government mandates.   

“Together, as we continue to recover from the omicron surge, we will build resiliency and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic,” said Oregon Governor Kate Brown. “As we learn to live with this virus, we must remain vigilant to protect each other and prevent disruption to our schools, businesses, and communities — with a focus on protecting our most vulnerable and the people and communities that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19.”

Under Monday’s announcement, local jurisdictions and school districts will continue to have the option of enacting mask requirements that go beyond the state guidance.  

“Many businesses and families will continue choosing to wear masks, because we’ve learned how effective they are at keeping one another safe,” added Washington state Governor Jay Inslee.

California’s largest teachers union applauded the move but noted the shift is “bound to disrupt and destabilize some school communities.”

E. Toby Boyd, President of the California Teachers Association, signaled some cities and schools may decide to extend indoor mask mandates. “Reaction to today’s announcement will be mixed,” he said. “Simply put, while some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid.”

Meanwhile Newsom’s critics insisted the decision was long overdue and not thorough enough.

“Why wait? This should have already happened,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, said.  

As he often has during the last two years, Newsom tapped California Health & Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly to explain the latest pandemic policy shift to reporters.

Ghaly, a pediatrician, defended the decision to unmask students by noting that Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations dipped 50% in the last two weeks. Furthermore, Ghaly said California schools have adequate testing capabilities and other mitigation strategies to flag future outbreaks.

“The next phase may bring future surges or new variants and California will continue to be ready and build on what we’ve learned,” Ghaly said in a virtual press conference.

In the run-up to March 12, Ghaly said he expects pandemic trends to continue to improve and that he’s sympathetic to parents and teachers who might be uncomfortable with maskless classrooms. Ghaly said he didn’t consult with teachers or other labor unions about Monday’s policy shift.

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Categories / Education, Health, Regional

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