California softened its coronavirus guidelines for the 2021-22 school year for public schools after it originally stated students who refused to wear masks would be barred from campuses. Although face masks will be required indoors, social distancing will no longer be mandated, the state announced Monday.
“Masks best promote both safety and in-person learning by reducing the need for physical distancing,” the California Department of Public Health said in its updated guidelines.
There were concerns that social distancing would make it difficult for schools to accommodate all students in the classroom, so the state instead imposed a mask rule for the upcoming school year. Teachers, staff or students who are exempted from wearing a mask due to a medical condition will still be required to wear an alternative form of protection, such as a face shield.
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"Mask enforcement will continue to be handled by local schools as the state recognizes the unique needs of each district and child," the CDPH said on Tuesday in an email sent out to media outlets.
The state's change of heart comes as a result of its goal to have as many students attend full-time, in-person instruction as possible, the state's Department of Public Health said.
State officials said their initial decision to "exclude students from campus if they are not exempt from wearing a face covering" was a reaction to updated recommendations issued on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which would allow vaccinated students in classrooms without masks.
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"In California, the surest path to safe and full in-person instruction at the outset of the school year, as well as minimizing missed school days in an ongoing basis, is a strong emphasis on the following: vaccination for all eligible individuals to get COVID-19 rates down throughout the community; universal masking in schools, which enables no minimum physical distancing, allowing all students access to full in-person learning, and more targeted quarantine practices, keeping students in school; and access to a robust COVID-19 testing program as an available additional safety layer," the new guidelines stated.
The guidelines will apply to all students, including those 12 and older who have been fully vaccinated.
The specific guidelines regarding masks at schools, per the CDPH:
- Masks are optional outdoors for all in K-12 school settings
- K-12 students are required to mask indoors, with exemptions per CDPH face mask guidance. Adults in K-12 school settings are required to mask when sharing indoor spaces with students
- Persons exempted from wearing a face covering due to a medical condition, must wear a non-restrictive alternative, such as a face shield with a drape on the bottom edge, as long as their condition permits it
- Schools must develop and implement local protocols to provide a face covering to students who inadvertently fail to bring a face covering to school to prevent unnecessary exclusions
- Consistent with guidance from the 2020-21 school year, schools must develop and implement local protocols to enforce the mask requirements. Additionally, schools should offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering. Note: Public schools should be aware of the requirements in AB 130 to offer independent study programs for the 2021-22 school year.
- In limited situations where a face covering cannot be used for pedagogical or developmental reasons, (e.g., communicating or assisting young children or those with special needs) a face shield with a drape (per CDPH guidelines) can be used instead of a face covering while in the classroom as long as the wearer maintains physical distance from others. Staff must return to wearing a face covering outside of the classroom
Let Them Breathe to File Suit
Even before the release of the new guidelines, the advocacy group Let Them Breathe had announced plans to sue the state over mask guidelines on school campuses.
Let Them Breathe, created in March, has over 10,000 members nationwide, many of them frustrated parents in California.
Founder of Let Them Breathe and mother of four, Sharon Mckeeman, said the mask mandate for kids returning to school this fall is a personal issue for her.
“My fourth-grader is medically exempt,” Mckeeman said. “He's the only kid on his campus not wearing a mask, and that's been really difficult for him. I have another freshman who has coped with it, but I see the stress that it's had on him. I have another kid who is a junior, he really struggled during the closures over the masking issues. He has ADHD and it was really difficult for him to pay attention.”
The group is preparing to file a lawsuit against the state, and Mckeeman said “It could be filed as soon as next week.”
"It’s very unfortunate that they keep not following the science and keep not doing what is right for kids unless a judge makes them do that, Mckeeman said on Tuesday after the CDPH issued its new guidelines.
State health officials said their decision to mandate all children to wear masks in schools, despite new CDC guidelines saying vaccinated students can go maskless amid proper physical distancing, ensures everyone— regardless of vaccination status — is treated equally.
State officials are urging more mask-wearing, in part, due to the rapid spread of the delta variant.
Parents React After Initial Guidelines Are Issued
NBC 7 spoke with educators and local parents after the initial guidelines were issued, which permitted schools to bar students who did not mask up. The previous decision by the state seemed to be destined to polarize people, as have many of the restrictions and social distance requirements implemented by the state.
"I think it is unnecessary completely," Vista Unified English teacher Megan Bagshaw said. "It hinders their learning. It hinders their communication. It’s also unsanitary from everything I have seen."
"It's fine -- I think we are more safe this way," said Ricardo Bronzini, who is the father of two school-age children. "We are both vaccinated, me and my wife. The kids are not, so I think it is better they wear a mask and they got used to it. too.”
Other New School Guidelines
The rules say students who are exposed to someone who has the virus don't have to stay home for 10 days to quarantine. They can continue to attend class if they don't have symptoms and if they keep wearing a mask and are tested twice a week for 10 days. But they can't participate in sports or other extracurricular activities during that period.
Also, officials said that schools should still enforce physical distancing during lunch, with students eating outside as much as possible. The state said that vaccination “is strongly recommended” for everyone eligible, but the state doesn't say it's required.
The Associated Press contributed to this report -- Ed.