State’s school mask mandate to remain in place at least through February

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California will continue to require face masks indoors at K-12 schools for now, but will reassess in two weeks whether the mask mandate will remain in place beyond February.

That reassessment will focus on COVID-19 case rates, test positivity, hospitalizations and vaccination rates.

While new cases and test positivity have plummeted in recent weeks from a high in mid-January, vaccination rates among children have not changed much in recent months.

According to state data, 36 percent of children in Yolo County children ages five to 11 years old are fully vaccinated, with 12 to 17 year olds at 55 percent.

But during a press briefing Monday, California’s secretary of health and human services, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said there is no threshold for what vaccination rates — or other criteria — must be before lifting the mask mandate in schools.

“We don’t plan at this point to set a threshold above which or below which something happens. What I think is the real opportunity today is to explain to Californians where we are with childhood vaccinations, that we have a long way to go, and to work with families and communities to get that number up.

Ghaly also said the state “will continue to move according to the science,” but that “masking requirements were never put in place to be there forever. It isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

For vaccinated individuals in California, that “when” comes Wednesday when they are no longer required to wear face coverings indoors except in certain settings such as K-12 schools, though face masks are still recommended for everyone.

Last week Yolo County’s health officer changed her recommendation on outdoor masking at schools, saying where more than 50 percent of a student population is vaccinated, she would no longer recommend mask wearing outdoors as she has since the beginning of the school year.

The Winters Joint Unified School District lifted its outdoor masking requirement last year following a lengthly discussion by the Board of Trustees.

The next change could well be the lifting of the indoor mask mandate on campuses, with Ghaly saying on Feb. 28, the state will reassess COVID-19 conditions “and we anticipate being able to share what the next period of time will look like and with some specificity give a date when the masking requirement will move to a recommendation.”

But the bottom line, he said, is “based on our data… we’re getting to a place where we can relax the statewide masking requirement in schools.”

Ghaly said he anticipates the change will be made in two weeks and “that change is going to be one that I think will be met with a lot of excitement in some and a lot of fear in others.

“We also know that local communities are having these conversations today and although the state sets an important bar, where people can’t be less restrictive than the state, they can certainly add layers of protection in their communities as they see fit.

“We know that in some pockets of California, there will be a decision to maintain something even beyond what the state makes a decision to change and in other parts it will be an immediate change.”

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