Palo Alto elementary and middle schoolers are going to once again have to wear face coverings at recess and lunch, under a new outdoor mask mandate the Palo Alto Unified School District announced Friday.
The requirement takes effect on Monday. High school students will continue to have the choice of whether to wear a mask outdoors, although the district encourages it. The state requires masks be worn indoors for all grade levels but leaves it optional outdoors.
Superintendent Don Austin estimated that over 80% of Palo Alto students are already choosing to wear a mask outdoors. However, having 100% of students mask up outdoors will make it easier to implement the state's protocols for responding to COVID-19 cases on campus. The requirement will simplify things, Austin said.
"It just seemed to make sense as contact tracing is much more challenging when you add the additional variable of masked or unmasked," Austin said.
Under the state's rules, unvaccinated students who come into close contact with someone that tests positive for COVID-19 can continue coming to school but only if certain criteria are met, including that both the unvaccinated student and the person who tested positive were wearing masks at all times during the exposure.
"Now we know if you're on our campus and you're outside and within 6 feet of somebody, you're going to have a mask on," Austin said.
Students will only be allowed to take a break from masking outside if they are at least 6 feet away from everyone else.
According to Austin, the calculus is different at the high school level, where students are "largely" already vaccinated. Currently, anyone ages 12 and older is eligible to get the shot. Fully vaccinated students who get exposed to COVID-19 are allowed to remain on campus, so long as they have no symptoms, without school staff having to determine if masks were worn at the time of exposure.
Palo Alto's decision to require masks outside for elementary and middle schoolers follows in the footsteps of some local K-8 districts, including Mountain View Whisman and Los Altos.
Parents had also reached out to the district to encourage Palo Alto to require masks outdoors, Austin said, adding that, at a meeting on Friday, all the school principals supported the change.
He acknowledged that some people may have trouble with the mandate, given many other outdoor activities don't require a face covering.
"For some people, they are struggling with the contradiction that you can walk through downtown Palo Alto and see people walking outdoors without a mask in no violation. You can see people eating indoors without a violation. And yet in schools you can't play kickball without a mask," Austin said.
However, in the end the district decided to move forward with the rule because it will simplify contact tracing protocols, was supported by principals and aligns with nearby districts, he said.
"If this helps us to keep our doors open for the great things we're seeing in classrooms, then it was worth it," Austin said.