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California calling off mask rules for school children—but SF has no plans to follow suit

Students are masked in the playground of Lakeshore Alternative Elementary School on Jan. 13, 2022. | Camille Cohen

California will end its indoor mask mandate for school children on Mar. 12, but San Francisco school officials say the city’s policy will stay in place until the end of the term to keep students and teachers safe. 

“We are all in agreement that as a district, we want to keep this important safety tool of mask wearing in place until the end of the school year,” Gabriela López, president of the San Francisco Unified School District board, said in a text to The Standard. 

López said supporters of keeping the school’s mask mandate include the superintendent, district staff, Board of Education leadership and the teacher’s union. SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick confirmed that universal masking indoors would continue past March 12.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made the announcement in a joint statement with the governors of Oregon and Washington. Along with the change for schools, California is also lifting the indoor masking requirement for unvaccinated individuals on Mar. 1. Masks are still required in high-transmission areas like public transit, emergency shelters, jails and prisons and senior care homes.

“California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we’ve learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic,” Newsom said. “Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high. We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward.”

Indoor mask mandates at schools have emerged as a point of contention between health officials and advocates for lifting masking mandates. Opponents of the mandates say face coverings are damaging to childrens’ ability to socialize and acquire language skills. López and her board colleagues Allison Collins and Faauuga Moliga were recalled by San Francisco voters in a special election earlier this month, and rules related to the pandemic were one of the primary issues. 

A number of districts across the state have decided to make masking for students optional prior to Newsom’s announcement. Locally, parents have publicly protested the rules on masks and a group of UCSF doctors circulated an online petition calling for the state to lift restrictions. That petition now has more than 55,000 signatures.

Dr. Jeanne Noble, the director of Covid response for the UCSF Parnassus Campus, said she strongly disagreed with the district’s decision to continue to require masks.

“That is tragic news for the children of San Francisco,” said Noble, who helped author the petition and letter calling for an end to masks in schools. “They desperately need a return to a fully normal school environment. This decision will postpone that needlessly for many more months.”

Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top public health official, said in a news conference that the state’s low transmission rates and hospitalization numbers led to Monday’s decision. While he stressed that masks are still “strongly recommended” in school settings, he noted that California had among the lowest rates of pediatric hospitalizations compared to other similar states.   

“Why now? We said we’d look at the data and we’ve seen some really encouraging trends,” Ghaly said. “Given what we just came out of with Omicron and the surge and given the reeling communities that still exist today we will continue to strongly recommend (masks) at this moment. Then one day we will go to a recommendation and maybe even say that they’re optional.”

He added that local officials can still introduce more stringent mask restrictions if needed. That looks to be the approach SFUSD will take for the time being.

Any changes to the San Francisco school district’s COVID-19 safety protocols must be discussed with labor groups. United Educators of San Francisco indicated that it would accept recommendations to lift mask rules as long as mitigation measures remain in place, such as testing and providing quality masks for those who want them. Low case rates will also need to hold.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, UESF, along with the other unions of SFUSD, have worked tirelessly around health and safety standards based on science that meets the needs of our community,” union President Cassondra Curiel said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the District and City to find a collaborative path to ease mask requirements based on the needs of San Francisco students, families, staff, and educators.”

Not all San Francisco officials agree on the more cautious approach of continuing to have children mask up. In an interview with Yahoo News last week, Mayor London Breed said, “if I had my way, I would let kids run around free without masks.”

The San Francisco Department of Public Health will align its own guidance with the new state rules lifting the school mask mandate. DPH said 69% of San Francisco children ages 5 to 11 and more than 90% of teenagers ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated.

“Masks are still an important prevention tool for now and in the future, and we may need to rely on masks again if we see new surges in cases or new variants,” San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip said in a statement. “ For now, with case rates continuing to drop, this is a safe step in a direction toward fewer restrictions.”

San Francisco’s own universal indoor mask mandate for adults was lifted on Feb. 15, although individual businesses have the latitude to impose their own masking rules. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently updated mask guidelines across the country, putting San Francisco in the green tier, which has the lowest risk. The CDC also revised its guidance around masks in schools, recommending officials use the same criteria to govern mask requirements as the general community.

Earlier this month, Newsom announced the state’s new SMARTER plan as California moves into the next phase of its Covid response. In recognition of the waning Omicron wave, the plan was designed to make California more flexible as case rates and hospitalizations fluctuate with future variants.

Kevin Truong can be reached at