California school mask mandate ends March 11

California will change its school masking policy from “required” to “strongly recommended” beginning March 12, according to a joint release in which Gov. Gavin Newsom joined the governors of Oregon and Washington in announcing new masking policies. The decision to sunset the statewide mask mandate was accompanied by confirmation that the measures giving local educational agencies greater flexibility to deal with staffing shortages will expire on March 31 as originally scheduled.

CSBA President Dr. Susan Heredia welcomed the dual announcements as responsive to many of the requests issued in the organization’s Feb. 22 letter to Gov. Newsom and described them as important steps toward a more sensible and productive learning environment for California students.

“We’re pleased that Governor Newsom has heeded CSBA’s call for a data-informed, K-12-specific exit strategy for emergency COVID-19 measures in California schools. The Feb. 25 executive orders ​and today’s announcement ​provide needed clarity for schools from both an operational and a community engagement standpoint as they make plans for staffing, budgeting, and health and safety procedures,” Dr. Heredia said. “Governing boards required this information for critical decisions on emergency substitute credentials, student teachers, long-term substitute assignments, financial incentives for retiree teachers and school masking.”

Gov. Newsom praised the effectiveness of masking as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 while adding that the latest data convinced his administration’s experts that it was time to replace the school masking requirement with a “strong” recommendation. This transition aligns schools masking regulations more closely with the policy for the general public. Masks will still be required for everyone in high transmission settings like public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities. In addition, local jurisdictions and LEAs may have additional requirements beyond the state guidance.

“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,” said Gov. Newsom in a statement. “Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high. 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 latest data

In a press conference following the announcement, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly cited the metrics behind the decision. Cases continue to trend downward in the state, decreasing 66 percent from Feb. 14. Hospitalizations are about half of what they were in the state two weeks ago and test positivity has dropped 53 percent. “We looked at what’s happening with the pediatric data and California is among the lowest pediatric hospitalizations compared to other states. And this is in part about the important mitigation tools that we’ve equipped schools with throughout the school year,” Ghaly said.

Ghaly added that California has roughly 12 percent of the nation’s students, but has been responsible for less than 1 percent of the country’s COVID-related school closures this year. He credited those results to multiple layers of health protections, including masking, vaccines and testing. Ghaly also noted that while masks have effectively reduced risk, and their impact is greater when rates are higher. So, as transmission rates dropped, his team began to consider whether a statewide indoor school making requirement remained necessary and consulted with other states on policy measures.

Ghaly emphasized the state’s continued focus on equity through its SMARTER Plan. “California and its regions do not experience the pandemic exactly the same way and although these are statewide numbers, they have a range across the state. Some places are still seeing their hospitals impacted” Ghaly said. He emphasized the point by showing slides illustrating the disparities in groups across the state. For example, case rates in lower-income communities are 24 percent higher than the statewide average and death rates for the Black and Latino communities are 17 percent higher and 16 percent higher, respectively.

“Education leaders can now use both statewide data as well as constituent input and the facts on the ground in their specific communities, including any local public health orders, to craft sensible COVID-19 mitigation frameworks for local schools,” Dr. Heredia said. “Our state has experienced significant declines in case rates, test positivity, hospitalizations and other key indicators over the past month, factors that led to the revocation of mask mandates in almost all indoor public places, except for schools and other settings like skilled nursing facilities. Aligning school regulations with current trendlines in the data and with overall public policy will help refocus attention from adult conflicts toward what is required to create a productive learning environment for California students as we transition to this latest phase of the fight against COVID-19.”

Ghaly stressed that local public health agencies and individual districts can continue to require masking and that the state has gone from a requirement to a strong recommendation — a level above “recommended” and “optional” — for a number of reasons, including protecting children who are not yet eligible for vaccinations as well as those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons and immunocompromised individuals. He also noted that no person can be prevented from wearing a mask as a condition of participation in an activity or entry into a school or business.

In conclusion, Ghaly stated California will remain vigilant on surveillance and continue to track data and conditions with a robust school testing program that can help the state adjust to unpredictable turns in viral transmission and protect children who are not eligible for a vaccine, senior citizens, and people who are disabled, as well as those who have compromised immune systems or other chronic conditions.

Also clarified by the Administration is how this announcement impacts students on school buses. The clarification stated that school buses serving K-12 populations are considered a school setting and accordingly, masking remains required through March 11, 2022, after which time masking will be strongly recommended.

Expiration of staffing flexibility orders confirmed

On Friday, February 25, 2022, the Governor issued an Executive Order clarifying how flexibilities that are scheduled to expire on March 31, will carry schools through the end of the current school year. Specifically after March 31, 2022:

  • Days that a substitute teacher provided instruction in a single assignment prior to March 31, 2022, will not count towards that teacher’s 60-day limit during the 2021–22 school year.
  • Post-retirement salary earned by a retired educator that returned to teaching in the 2021–22 year prior to March 31, 2022, will not count towards that retired teacher’s post-retirement earnings cap for the 2021–22 school year.
  • Retired educators that returned to service prior to March 31, 2022, may continue in service even if they are still within the 180-day post-retirement employment wait period.
  • Allows for the lapsation of flexibilities around issuance of local substitute credentials without requiring a separate application to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and state funding for classes taught by unsupervised student teachers.