San Francisco Unified School District announced Friday it will no longer require masks in secondary schools starting March 12, reversing course on its previous policy to align with new state health guidelines.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the mask mandate for schools would end after March 12, but masks indoors would still be “strongly recommended.” In response, SFUSD officials said no masking protocols were expected to change before the end of the school year.
Staff and students at middle schools and high schools will no longer be required to wear masks starting March 12, and that will expand to all schools on April 2. The change is part of an agreement with the school district’s unions.
“We are committed to following public health guidance and our health officials have stated that masks in schools are no longer required but still recommended,” SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews said. “We recognize changes in masking and contact tracing practices will be a transition for our community. Throughout this pandemic, we have had to constantly change but I trust we are moving in the right direction when we follow the science.”
The district’s initial decision to retain the mandate may have been the result of a miscommunication, said United Educators of San Francisco spokesperson Amanda Hart. SFUSD must meet with labor groups before making any changes to the district’s health and safety agreement—in place until the end of the school year. District officials were not able to do so until after the original announcement. Upon meeting, the concerned parties agreed to have masking be a personal choice while retaining protocols like testing, access to masks and ventilation.
Unlike winter break, students will be sent home with tests and must test negative to return.
Vaccination rates are lower at the district’s elementary schools, Hart noted, adding that keeping the mandate in place a bit longer for pre-K to 5th grade will give families through the end of spring break to get their children vaccinated. More than 90% of 12- to 17-year-olds and more than 69% of 5- to 11-year-olds—the youngest group that can get vaccinated in San Francisco—are fully vaccinated.
“We are still recommending that people wear their masks,” Hart said. “Now people have a choice based on these new timelines. There’s enough mixed feelings about this issue that were going to have to find a balance here. We’re trying to be respectful of people’s personal choice at this point.”
Indoor mask mandates at schools have been a point of contention between health officials and advocates for lifting masking mandates. Opponents of the mandates have argued that face coverings are damaging to childrens’ ability to socialize and acquire language skills.
Experts said most evidence doesn’t suggest masking harms kids and has some benefits, according to National Geographic. Medical opinion is mixed on how soon to remove masks from the school setting.
The announcement that the mask mandate would be lifted after all, came as a relief to some and a disappointment to others. Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of Covid response with UCSF’s Emergency Department, and one of the authors of a contentious letter calling for an end to mask mandates in schools, celebrated the news. She criticized the decision to delay lifting the mandate at elementary schools, calling the attention to that group’s lower vaccination rates “misguided.”
“I am very encouraged that they have gone ahead and aligned himself with [California Department of Public Health] and the [San Francisco] public health department,” Dr. Noble said. “Masks have been a really polarizing issue from the very beginning. What we really need to do is move forward with the idea that COVID is endemic and demote its status to other respiratory illnesses like influenza.”
Some teachers sought a long-term strategy that would trigger a mask mandate if another variant comes long. Vriana Kempster, SFUSD educator, previously told the Standard that her family has altered their lifestyle around her four-year-old with cystic fibrosis, who is not yet eligible to be vaccinated, from higher impacts of contracting coronavirus.
“If the district decides to drop the mask mandate, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” on Tuesday. “I can’t just walk out of the room if I don’t feel safe. It would be upsetting if a new variant came up and we weren’t prepared for that.”
The Board of Education will vote on the addendum to the health and safety agreement on Tuesday.
Ida Mojadad can be reached at [email protected]