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California mask mandate for schools to end after March 11

An N-95 mask hangs on the back of a chair in an empty classroom.
Marco Fileccia

All students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, will no longer be required to wear a mask indoors at schools and child care facilities starting March 12.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and California state health officials issued the order on Monday, nearly a month after they lifted the mandate for vaccinated people gathering in restaurants and other indoor spaces.

“I think the masks should be optional tomorrow on March 1st,” said Megan Bacigalupi, an Oakland parent who leads the group CA Parent Power. “I don’t understand the rationale of a further delay of another two weeks.”

Ending the mask mandate in schools comes almost exactly two years after the state first shut down schools in many districts in March 2020. Parents and students across California have been demanding the step be taken sooner. A handful of districts across California already lifted their mask mandates.

“It seems like politics and the (California Teachers Association) are holding up my son’s chance of getting back to a normal school year,” said Scott Davison, a San Diego County parent. “I’m frustrated. I should be happier, but we’ve been fighting for months.”

But a recent poll found that 61% of parents with school-age children support school mask mandates. Lisa Gardiner, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, denied the accusation from some parents that teachers unions delayed the lifting of the mask mandate.

“The Governor’s office engaged all school stakeholders in the conversation around a safe transition for schools-management and labor,” Gardiner wrote in a text message on Monday. “Our approach has always been grounded in science. Those who are trying to vilify educators right now want this to be about politics rather than safety and science.”

CTA president E. Toby Boyd said he supports the “optimism of Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDPH officials that declining COVID-19 cases hospitalizations allow us to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.” But Boyd also acknowledged that many students might not feel ready to unmask at school.

Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine, says it’s too early to lift the mask mandate, especially because it remains unclear what thresholds the state hopes to reach by March 12.

“I can only say that the COVID rates are too high now,” he said. “But I’m not in favor of a future in which kids always go to school with masks.”

The state’s decision and timeline for making masks optional in schools arrives just days after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised federal guidance on masking in schools. CDC experts said counties showing positive trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates do not need to require masking in most indoor spaces, including schools.

“I think California’s approach is smarter to treat schools differently because students for the time being have much lower vaccination rates than other demographics,” Noymer said.

In Monday’s announcement, state officials said local school districts will be able to have stricter masking rules than the state order.

San Diego Unified, the second largest district in the state, will continue enforcing its indoor mask mandate, according to school board president Richard Barrera.

“San Diego County is still in the high-risk tier, even under the CDC’s new system,” Barrera said. “When we move into the moderate-risk tier, then we’ll reassess.”

Districts like Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified required masking outdoors even after the state made the practice optional. Los Angeles got rid of its outdoor mask mandate last week. Officials from both districts have not yet responded to questions about how they will adjust their rules starting March 12.

State officials also said on Monday that the indoor mask mandate for unvaccinated adults will be lifted starting March 1. Masks will still be required in “high transmission settings” like public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

Joe is the K-12 education reporter for CalMatters. His stories use data to highlight inequities in California’s public schools. Before joining CalMatters in June 2021, he was the education reporter at KPBS, the public media station in San Diego. Previously, he covered the schools in the Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper in Palm Springs. He has a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine and a master's degree from Columbia Journalism School.