The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
In early July, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced that masks would still be required in public school classrooms this fall, at least through November 1. Superintendent of Mendocino County Schools Michelle Hutchins explained that while this may be disappointing to some, the alternative COVID-prevention practices would force students back into a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning.
“Basically, CDPH was given two options: either to have schools maintain at least three feet of physical distance between students at all times or to have them require masks. Because school facilities were not designed for three feet of space between students, the only way to do so would be to reduce the number of students in the classroom—forcing everyone to return to a hybrid model,” she said. “Masks are a small price to pay to have all students back in the classroom, engaging with their teachers and peers.”
As such, Mendocino County K-12 schools will require universal masking indoors for students and staff. Hutchins believes the pandemic will continue to decline as more people get vaccinated, and eventually, students and educators will be able to discard their masks, but with reports of new COVID diagnoses popping up all over the county, it would be premature to return to schools without masks. “In mid-July, about half of Mendocino County residents were vaccinated, leaving us vulnerable to outbreaks,” she said.
California Health & Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said, “Masking is a simple and effective intervention that does not interfere with offering full in-person instruction. At the outset of the new [school] year, students should be able to walk into school without worrying about whether they will feel different or singled out for being vaccinated or unvaccinated – treating all kids the same will support a calm and supportive school environment.”
According to Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren, mask enforcement will be up to school policy. He recommends that schools have extra masks on hand for those who forget them and that schools be prepared to comply with California State Assembly Bill 130, that requires schools to offer alternative educational opportunities such as independent study for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.
The CDPH guidance seeks to ensure that all students have access to as much instructional time as possible and that it be safe, full in-person instruction whenever possible. A CDPH spokesperson said, “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 on 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. Recent evidence indicates that in-person instruction can occur safely without minimum physical distancing requirements when other mitigation strategies (e.g., masking) are fully implemented.”
Hutchins noted that masking may help reduce the spread of the virus, especially the more contagious Delta Variant, and that by requiring everyone to wear a mask, schools will not be burdened with tracking vaccination status to monitor and enforce mask wearing. She also agrees with the CDPH position that requiring everyone to wear a mask could prevent some students from being called out for wearing or not wearing masks, depending on the culture and attitudes in the school or surrounding community.
According to the CDPH website, CDPH will continue to assess conditions on an ongoing basis and will determine no later than November 1 whether to update mask requirements or recommendations. “Indicators, conditions, and science review will include vaccination coverage status, in consideration of whether vaccines are available for children under 12, community case and hospitalization rates, outbreaks, and ongoing vaccine effectiveness against circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in alignment with the CDC-recommended indicators to guide K-12 school operations.”