California to lift its school mask mandate on March 12

California will no longer require masks in schools starting March 12, state officials announced Monday. Instead, California will strongly recommend masks in classrooms.

The announcement is the latest in California’s efforts to wind down pandemic restrictions. In light of falling COVID-19 cases, officials have been shifting away from an emergency mindset into one that assumes we will live with the virus indefinitely.

California earlier this month lifted its universal indoor mask mandate that had been in place since December due to the omicron surge. At that time, the state said people who hadn’t received the vaccine still needed to wear masks. Starting March 1, however, masks will be recommended, but not required, for unvaccinated individuals in most public indoor settings.

After 11:59 pm on March 11, in schools and child care facilities, masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended. Masks will still be required for everyone in high transmission settings like public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

Local jurisdictions will be able to require more stringent policies if they wish.

“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,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “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.”

The Golden State is updating its masking policies at the same time as Oregon and Washington state, though the changes are not identical.

Oregon will stop requiring masks in indoor public spaces in schools on March 12 as well. Washington will also lift its indoor mask mandate at that time, but will stick with its original plan to lift the school mask mandate on March 21.

“As has been made clear time and again over the last two years, COVID-19 does not stop at state borders or county lines,” said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in a statement “On the West Coast, our communities and economies are linked. Together, as we continue to recover from the Omicron surge, we will build resilience and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic.”

California, Oregon and Washington are among only 13 states that still have mask mandates in place for classrooms, drawing ire from conservatives and some parent groups. Frustrated with state leaders, some California school districts have opted to forego the state law and allow students to choose if they want to wear masks.

In a call with reporters on Monday, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the state will continue to provide COVID-19 mitigation resources to schools, and the public must be prepared to adjust with the conditions of the virus.

California will still strongly recommend masking in schools, in part, because vaccination rates remain lower among children than the general public. According to the latest state data, 36.5% of children ages 5 to 11 are partially or fully vaccinated.

Ghaly said there is also concern for children who aren’t eligible for the vaccine yet, people with disabilities, those with compromised immune systems, and people over 65 who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

When it comes to school districts who refuse to enforce the current state mask mandate, Ghaly said enforcement has been tricky throughout the pandemic.

“I know that some people are concerned about what the next 10, 11 days bring,” he said. “But I’m confident that we will continue to see the schools keep masks on. No, it won’t happen everywhere, but I think in the vast majority, the message will be the anticipation for preparing around a change, if that’s what the district decides.”

Newsom and Ghaly earlier this month unveiled a new COVID-19 response plan, dubbed the “SMARTER” plan, which will focus on shots, masks, awareness, readiness, testing, education and rx, or treatments.

“We’re gliding into normal. We’re not announcing the normal,” Ghaly said on Feb. 17. “The virus will drive what we do.”

On Friday, Newsom announced plans to lift a series of statewide orders he issued during the pandemic, but his overall emergency declaration will remain in place.

Some of the orders and provisions will end immediately, while others are set to expire on March 31 and June 30. They encompass use of facilities for housing and medical treatment, COVID relief funds, appointment and Senate confirmation deadlines, flexibility for state public meetings and provisions related to teacher staffing for kindergarten through 12th grade schools.

Newsom’s detractors have criticized him for not rescinding the state of emergency, which gives him additional powers and agency in light of the pandemic.

State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said the Governmental Organization Committee will hold a March 15 hearing on Senate Concurrent Resolution 5, which is authored by state Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, and would end the state of emergency Newsom declared in March 2020.

News of changes to California’s school mask mandate was met with frustration from Republicans and some parent groups, who complained students are the last group to return to normalcy.

“The statewide indoor mask mandate was lifted on February 15th, so it defies reason that California students have to wait an additional month to remove their masks if they choose,” said Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of CA Parent Power. “Once the mandate is lifted, it is incumbent upon local districts to heed the guidance from CDPH and allow their students to unmask on March 11. There is no scientific justification for a student in Roseville to be able to unmask while a student in Oakland cannot .”

Lindsey Holden of The Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this story.

This story was originally published February 28, 2022 11:00 AM.

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Lara Korte covers California politics for The Sacramento Bee. Before joining The Bee, she reported on Texas higher education for the Austin American-Statesman. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas.