A fourth-grade camping trip led to one outburst, one high school prom to another. But even with the increase in Covid cases as schools enter the final phase of the school year, most California counties have not taken steps to reinstate mask mandates.
This attitude has left many parents confused and worried when they witness or hear Covid outbreaks among students after field trips and proms.
Across California, school administrators are running out of time in hopes of beating the outbreaks. The Berkeley school system and some others have reversed their policies on optional masks, and the District of San Diego sent letters to parents warning that masks could be reinstated if cases continue to rise. But most districts — including those in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland — have not revised their guidance as summer approaches.
“I have no plans to make any new recommendations in the last three weeks of school,” Dublin Unified Superintendent Chris Funk told KHN, noting that the Alameda County Health Department lifted mandatory mask rules in classrooms more than two months ago.
Among other factors, administrators are reluctant to expose districts to legal challenges. From the start, attempts to create nationwide Covid protocols for schools have met with sometimes fierce opposition. Some districts, many of them rural, ignored California’s school mask mandate. In February, the Roseville Joint Union High School District, which enrolls about 12,000 students in Placer and Sacramento counties, dropped the mask rule, though a statewide mandate remained in effect.
Another reason schools are not returning to masking, several administrators told KHN, is that despite rising cases, most districts are following county guidelines that tie public health precautions to either number of Covid hospitalizations or exposure that they would cause on-site health systems. Hospital admission rates are typically two weeks behind positive case numbers. Still, hospital admissions remain low for now, likely due to the availability of vaccines and antiviral treatments.
“We should be past the mask mandates, period,” said Dr. Jeanne Noble, who leads Covid emergency response at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. She said the virus no longer posed a significant health risk for young and vaccinated populations and that people needed to adjust to living with Covid. That means taking a “test-to-treat” approach, she said, rather than trying to prevent transmission. The Biden administration is moving to a model where patients are tested and then treated with antiviral pills like Pfizer’s Paxlovid or Merck’s Molnupiravir to reduce their risk of going to the hospital.
“I know my advice sounds scary to many, but Covid is here to stay,” Noble said. “This is the endgame.”
That can be a tough sell for some parents.
When 40 of 100 fourth graders at Deterding Elementary in Sacramento County’s San Juan Unified School District contracted Covid after sharing a cubicle during a bedtime field trip, the school was overwhelmed by requests from parents of students in other grades who were wondering whether their health concerns were about to change school rules – and whether the fifth-grade camping trip planned for June 1st would go ahead.
According to Raj Rai, the district’s communications director, it will, although the district will monitor local conditions and public health guidance.
Some parents were confused or upset at the news that the fifth-grade trip would remain on schedule, even though the district was following county health recommendations. Melanie Allen, Deterding’s principal, said such confusion had been a common theme in a school year marked by changing public health guidelines.
“Although the district posted clear information on the website, the parents constantly contacted the school administration to clarify the next steps for exposure or positive results,” the school principal wrote in an email to KHN.
The rising case numbers forced the District of Berkeley to do a late review — reinstating mask requirements in classrooms from May 23 until the end of its school year on June 3. Superintendent Brent Stephens noted in an update on the district’s website that the district has only been able to find replacements for about half of its absent teachers due to rising student infection rates. County administrators, he said, are working in classrooms to cover the shifts. The city’s chief public health officer strongly recommended a return to mask requirements.
“Because we are not a public health agency, we have to rely on these experts,” Stephens wrote.
Very few of California’s more than 1,000 school districts have joined the Berkeley system to make such a decision. On May 16, school officials in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, ordered masks to be worn in all classrooms by around 2,000 students. Katrina Powley, the county nurse, said the county is one of the few to tie its masking policy to Monterey County case rates. Therefore, when these rates switched from “low” to “moderate” transmission, a mask mandate was triggered.
The San Mateo Union High School District board of trustees voted in early May to extend its mask mandate through June 1 and tighten protocols after a prom held in San Francisco in April resulted in an outbreak among 90 of the 600 students in attendance led .
These counties remain in the minority despite the nationwide Covid surge. About 20 schools in Marin County experienced outbreaks in early May. And in Dublin’s East Bay school district, rates rose fivefold from March to April and continued to rise in May. These schools have not revised their policies on optional masks.
Schools in Davis, Yolo County, have not reinstated mask requirements despite rising cases, in large part because the county’s health director has decoupled mandates from test positivity rates.
“We have adequate protection against the virus, particularly with Paxlovid, which is available at test-to-treat locations,” said John Fout, a spokesman for the county. Only increased hospital admissions, which are a strain on the healthcare system, would lead to change, he added.
At this point, a rise in serious illnesses may not be recognized until after the school year is over – and that’s something many school administrators seem to be counting on.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.