California does a 180 on school mask mandate as state rules vary amid latest CDC guidance
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California does a 180 on school mask mandate as state rules vary amid latest CDC guidance

In a prompt about-face, California announced strict measures barring maskless K-12 students from campuses, only to update its stance hours later and suggest it would leave the decisions to local schools.

The announcements came Monday amid a worrisome spike in new Covid-19 cases reported nationwide since last week.

“California’s school guidance will be clarified regarding masking enforcement, recognizing local schools’ experience in keeping students and educators safe while ensuring schools fully reopen for in-person instruction,” read the update, which arrived via a California Department of Public Health tweet.

Earlier, the state had released guidance saying not only that masks were mandated but that schools would be required to “exclude students from campus if they are not exempt from wearing a face covering under CDPH guidelines and refuse to wear one provided by the school.”

The original statement came across as a policy of “banning kids,” so it was rewritten to give schools more flexibility in enforcing or encouraging the use of masks, given that distancing is not possible in most schools, said Alex Stack, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California reported 3,256 new coronavirus cases Tuesday. It reported tens of thousands of cases daily through December and much of January. Since the pandemic began, it has reported more than 3.7 million cases and 63,478 deaths, according to state data.

Cities and states are taking a variety of approaches as the school year approaches. While states such as Texas and Iowa are prohibiting public schools from requiring masks, New York City and Chicago — two of the nation’s three most populous cities — are requiring students to don face coverings in the fall. Chicago officials said, however, they were reviewing the latest CDC guidance.

Rules follow updated guidance

California’s guidance followed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement that it was prioritizing in-person learning this school year and that only unvaccinated students and teachers need to abide by mask and distancing protocols. Fully vaccinated students, teachers and staff don’t need masks in school, the CDC said.

The CDC guidance does not replace local policies, and schools that are prepared to move away from pandemic precautions should do so gradually as community transmission reaches low levels, the agency said.

“If localities decide to remove prevention strategies in schools based on local conditions, they should remove them one at a time and monitor closely (with adequate testing) for any increases in COVID-19 cases before removing the next prevention strategy,” the CDC guidance said.

The agency also suggested schools promote vaccination (and even offer vaccines on site), provide paid leave for employees seeking to get vaccinated and excuse absences for students who need to be inoculated.

American youngsters must be at least 12 years old to receive an authorized vaccine, and the CDC recommends unvaccinated kids older than 2 wear masks when indoors.

States and localities appear to have broken into three camps on the matter: Some are banning mask mandates outright; more are allowing local officials to make decisions; and a handful are requiring masks.

Officials in several states say they are reviewing the CDC guidance and may update their guidelines.

Illinois announced it would follow the CDC guidance, and at least one local school official told the Daily Herald that her district in the Chicago suburbs of Palatine and Schaumburg did not keep records for Covid-19 vaccinations, as it did for other mandated vaccinations. States have charted different tacks on requiring proof of vaccination.

A stark divide develops among districts

At opposite ends of the mask guidance gamut are New York City and Texas. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that New Yorkers should assume masks will be worn in schools come September unless new developments spur a change in guidance. Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi promised “additional information for parents and students in the weeks ahead.”

“For now, we’re sticking with the idea that wearing the masks is the smart thing to do in schools. We’ll keep assessing as we go along, but I think for now, it still makes sense,” de Blasio said, adding that the city will “be driven by the data we see and the science, as always.”

Chicago — which announced its reopening last month, meaning businesses could toss capacity limits, most mask mandates and distancing requirements — says its public schools will require anyone older than 2 to wear masks. The school district has purchased three reusable face coverings for all students and staff, the Chicago Public Schools website said.

The school district teamed with the public health department Friday to inform parents it was reviewing the new CDC guidance: “After we have an opportunity to thoroughly review the guidance, we will inform the public about any potential impact on school opening guidance.”

States such as Texas and Iowa have gone in the opposite direction. As of June 4, no public school student or teacher can be required to wear a mask in Texas, and the state will levy a fine of up to $1,000 for any local school, health or other government official who tries to impose such a mandate, according to an executive order signed in May.

“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities. We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” Gov. Greg Abbott said.

Iowa, too, passed a law in May forbidding mask mandates in schools. It also included bans on cities and counties requiring masks in businesses. Under the law, students and school employees can be compelled to wear masks only for a “specific extracurricular or instructional purpose” or as required for eye and ear protection.

As in Texas, Iowa’s chief executive and other leaders implied it was a matter of freedom of choice.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said. “I am proud to be a governor of a state that values personal responsibility and individual liberties.”

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