The Palo Alto Unified School District plans to follow the state's lead and drop its indoor mask requirement on March 12, although masks will continue to be recommended in local classrooms.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Monday, Feb. 28, that the requirement to wear a mask inside schools will be lifted at the end of the day on Friday, March 11, for the first time during the pandemic. The decision comes as COVID-19 case rates have fallen sharply in recent weeks and other states have similarly announced an end to school mask mandates.
Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody announced on Tuesday, March 1, that the county will be lifting its indoor mask mandate on Wednesday, March 2, and would not impose any additional restrictions on schools.
According to Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin, his district plans to follow state and county rules. After March 11, it will be up to students and their families to decide whether to wear a face covering, although Austin said he would let the community know that the state still recommends masks indoors at schools.
"If you're comfortable masking, whether you're a staff member or a student, continue," Austin said. "Just because it became optional does not mean that there should be pressure to remove a mask. Do what makes sense for you and your family."
Other area schools are similarly announcing masking decisions in the wake of the state's announcement. Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Superintendent Nellie Meyer said that her district will follow state and county rules and plans to move from making masks required to recommended.
In the K-8 Mountain View Whisman School District, on the other hand, there aren't plans to take off masks just yet.
"For the time being, our schools will continue to require indoor and outdoor masking," Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph wrote in a letter to families on Monday.
Although the state is lifting its restrictions, school districts continue to be allowed to impose more stringent requirements. Mountain View Whisman's school board plans to discuss masking protocols at a March 10 meeting, Rudolph said.
Over in the Los Altos School District, Superintendent Jeff Baier said in a text that the school board plans to discuss masks at a March 7 meeting, although he added that the district has "been quite successful following the state and local guidance."
Even for districts that move to make masks optional, some local education leaders expect that many people won't be dropping their masks just yet.
This school year, the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District has only been requiring masks indoors, but Meyer said that a majority of students have still chosen to wear their masks outside. Similarly, she thinks many will opt to keep masking inside the classroom.
Although it will be up to individual choice, Austin said he thinks the evolution away from wearing masks will happen over time.
"A lot of students and a lot of teachers have been masking in classrooms for a long time now, so some will continue regardless of what the rules are and some will drop that mask off on the very first day they are allowed and some will ease into it," Austin said.
While some may choose to keep wearing a mask, others see a benefit to taking theirs off. Mountain View High School Spanish teacher and union president David Campbell said that as a language teacher, he depends on facial cues to know if students understand what's happening.
"As a teacher in the classroom, I cannot wait to see the faces of my kids for the first time all year. I can't wait to see them actually smiling. I can't wait to see them even frowning when they don't understand what I'm saying," Campbell said, adding that he also looks forward to taking off his own mask, so his students can see his face.
At the same time, Campbell acknowledged that some students and teachers are going to be concerned, and even scared, about the prospect of unmasking. In his role as union president, Campbell said he wants to make sure that the data is being followed in deciding when it's time to lift mask requirements. However, he added that he knows the state has been carefully tracking the relevant numbers and that he trusts state and local health officials are prioritizing everyone's best interests.
"We've just got to be confident in the science," Campbell said. "We've got to be confident in our leaders."
Others still have concerns. Sequoia Union High School District Teachers Association President Edith Salvatore said her district hasn't shared student vaccination rates, and because of this, she doesn't know the kind of risk teachers may face if indoor mask mandates are dropped.
During the fall semester, the district promised to collect data on student vaccination rates by September, but survey results have not been reported. Staff vaccination rates are known. For example, at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, 92.5% of staff are fully vaccinated.
"I have not heard anything yet from the district about their plans, beyond their statement before our mid-winter break that they would follow county guidelines and 'follow the science,'" she said in an email. The union planned to meet with the district on Monday afternoon and had discussion of the indoor mask mandate on the meeting agenda.
Why the mandate is dropping now
The state decided to drop the mask mandate in schools based on decreasing hospitalization and transmission rates, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly said during a Monday press conference. Cases are down 66% statewide over the last two weeks, he shared.
"We said we would look at the data and we're seeing really encouraging trends," he said.
The same is true locally. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Santa Clara County has dropped to 351, down from over 5,000 at the height of the omicron surge in early January. Santa Clara County's population is roughly 2 million.
In San Mateo County, cases have fallen 60% over the last two weeks, with an average of 163 cases per day as of Monday, Feb. 28, according to county data. Hospitalizations were also down 37% over the last two weeks. The county has roughly 760,000 residents.
Meyer said that she is happy conditions are improving and optimistic about the future, while adding that her district has been cautious throughout the pandemic.
"I'm pleased that this is signaling a shift to a transition away from many of the restrictions that we had previously," Meyer said. "I also appreciate the county public health and state public health departments are using the data to drive that decision."
At the same time that cases are dropping, Ghaly said vaccination rates among school aged children in the state are still "too low." In Santa Clara County, 72.7% of kids ages 5-17 have completed their initial vaccine series, compared to 93.9% of adults.
Rates among children in San Mateo County are lagging too. Some 63.5% of those ages 5 to 11 had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, as of Feb. 27, according to county data, lower than rates in other groups. This is still ahead of other parts of the state, such as Los Angeles County, which only has a 34.4% vaccine rate amongst 5- to 11-year-olds, as of Feb. 24.