Students in most counties in California would no longer have to wear masks in schools, effective immediately, under new guidance released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The new criteria, with a revised rating system, would apply to wearing masks indoors, including K-12 schools.
The announcement came three days ahead of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s expected announcement Monday laying out a timetable for ending the mask mandate in schools. The California Department of Public Health said Friday it was evaluating the latest recommendation from the CDC.
The CDC’s new policy would allow removing the masking requirement, in effect since July 2020, for school districts in the majority of California’s 58 counties. The requirement would remain in Los Angeles, Kern, San Diego, Fresno, and most rural counties until their high COVID rating, shown as orange on CDC’s color-coded system, lowers to medium (yellow) or low (green). (Go here for a recording of CDC’s press conference and here for a map of California counties, with current COVID ratings.)
The CDC’s new criteria mark a shift in strategy from measuring the COVID positivity rate and caseload to factors that examine COVID’s threat to the health care system in a county. It would be measured by three factors: hospital admissions of COVID patients, a hospital’s capacity to handle additional COVID cases, and new COVID cases in a county.
Thirty counties, including nearly all of the Bay Area and much of Southern California, including Orange and Riverside counties, currently fall into the low or medium categories, removing the indoor mask mandate unless their county health officers, using local measurements, decide that masking should continue.
Although Los Angeles and San Diego counties alone make up a third of the state’s population and Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified are the state’s two largest school districts, most of the 28 counties with a high ranking are in rural counties with the lowest COVID vaccination rates.
They include Humboldt, Lassen, Shasta, Sierra, and Yuba counties, where opposition to the mask mandate has been fierce and where several school boards have voted to defy the requirement. Merced, Solano, Napa and Monterey counties also have a high COVID rating.
On Tuesday, the board of the Nevada Joint Union High School District, which falls in an orange zone, became the latest district to adopt a policy of voluntary masking. Two days later, teachers at Nevada Union High School called in sick to protest the action, forcing the school to close for the day.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said CDC pivoted to new criteria that reflect the growing immunity across the nation due to COVID vaccinations and individuals with prior infections, as well as the omicron variant, which, while more contagious, was less severe than the previous delta variant. Nationwide, 37% of counties have a high rating, with 40% medium and 23% low, according to the CDC.
Greta Massetti, from CDC’s COVID Response Incident Management Team, said in a press conference that CDC included schools because experience has shown that “schools can be safe places” and so should fall under the same guidance as the wider community. Most children who have become infected with COVID have been asymptomatic, she said.
Walensky emphasized that high-risk, immunosuppressed people and other individuals should decide, based on their own circumstances, whether to continue to wear masks.
The CDC may modify the system in the future, based on new strains of COVID, and other factors, Walensky said.
In a statement Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said with the CDC’s updated guidance, “we can continue to keep schools safely open while allowing for educators and parents to get back to focusing on what is most important: our students’ futures.”
“Moving forward, districts should continue to work with local health experts, parents, and educators to identify what works best for their communities and consider the appropriate mitigation strategies needed to keep students and staff safe,” he said.