LA County will lift school, childcare indoor mask mandate on March 12, aligning with state’s shift

Los Angeles County will lift its indoor masking requirement at K-12 schools and childcare sites beginning March 12, in line with the state’s announcement on Monday, Feb. 28, that California will lift its indoor mandate beginning the same date, citing falling coronavirus case and hospitalization rates, officials said.

The county’s shift is, like the state’s, fueled by “improving conditions in many communities,” according to a state from L.A. County Public Health on Monday, not long after the state’s announcement.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said California, Oregon and Washington are moving in tandem to lift the statewide rules, and instead only “strongly recommending” masks.

“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 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.”

Under the revised state protocol, masks will not be required in schools and child-care facilities after March 11, though they will be strongly recommended. The state’s revision comes after the Centers for Disease Control on Friday  relaxed guidelines for mask wearing indoors in many parts of the country.

The county’s followed suit, but still includes a strong recommendation to wear masks indoors rather than a rule.

“We appreciate the continued leadership from the state as they adjust masking guidance to reflect the improving conditions across many communities,” read a statement from County Public Health.

The state and county shift was received well among many who have have been pushing for less stringent public health measures in a post-surge moment.

“I applaud our state’s decision to end masking mandates in school settings in the coming days,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who along with fellow Supervisor Janice Hahn had argued that mass masking mandates had become unenforceable, and needed more flexibility. “This is a much needed step in the right direction. It gives local jurisdictions the right to decide whether their children should wear masks in educational settings. Those decisions should be made based on local data, along with parent and staff input.”

The state stressed that masks will still be required in settings such as public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

State officials also emphasized that local jurisdictions may have additional requirements beyond the state guidance, and those requirements can be more stringent based on conditions on the ground.

For instance, according to the CDC website, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties were listed as having “medium” community levels of COVID-19, based on hospitalization rates and other factors.  Residents in those counties are at lower risk and are advised they could go without masks indoors. But in Los Angeles County, which was listed as having a “high” community level of the virus, the CDC recommends that residents continue to wear the face coverings.

And that brings big implications for schools.

Indeed, in L.A. County, those conditions — despite major improvements in the scenario — remain tenuous, public officials say.

On one hand, case rates and hospitalizations have clearly and dramatically declined. The 7-day average of cases has dropped by 94% from its high in mid-January. Back then, 1 of every 4 people were testing positive for the virus. As of the end of last week, 1 in 50 were.

Such decreases led L.A. County to lift its outdoor mask-wearing rules at schools and at outdoor mega events two weeks ago, and last week to ease up on indoor rules at businesses and other establishments, provided that there was proof of vaccination.

On the other hand, local public health officials have been wary of lifting masking mandates too soon at schools and other venues, citing waning vaccination rates, an inadequate supply line of therapeutics and the looming potential for new variants.

Complicating matters is that so few children 5 to 11 years old have been vaccinated at a time when transmission of the virus remains high by CDC standards.

By mid-February, only 26% of children in that age bracket had been fully vaccinated, according to L.A. County Public Health.

A growing number of students already are defying mask rules, and some parents have turned out to school board meetings to rail against mask requirements. Conversely, many other parents note that masks have proven an effective tool in slowing the disease and, they wonder: why stop now?

Indeed. L.A. County Public Health officials have repeatedly touted schools for their ability to contain the spread, and their openness to working with the county to establish protocols.

On Monday, critics of indoor masking continued to push the Newsom and state leaders.

“Why wait? This should have already happened,”  said Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Kern County.

Ferrer has acknowledged the frustrations of many parents.

“The vast majority of people who have been complaining to us are folks who want us to lift masking mandates at schools,” she told the Board of Supervisors two week ago, citing “a lot of frustration I hear on behalf of parents.”

But she noted the complexity of wholesale lifting the rule at a time when transmission remains high.

“We’re working with the state to figure out what conditions make it safer,” she said. “Because those are unique settings, and as everyone has noted, where you have lots and lots of potential spread opportunities if you’re not careful – On a daily basis, over a six-hour day, often.

There’s a whole group of essential workers that we need to be careful about as we continue to decline, and not leave it to happenstance about the levels of protection they are going to have. Because they have to go to work. And no matter what, once a lot of people take off those masks, those workers could potentially have more exposure.”

County health officials will give an update at the Board’s Tuesday meeting on the plan for how L.A. County will adjust its mandate.

“I look forward to that discussion and will continue to call for clarity and consistency with state and federal guidelines,” Barger said.

SCNG’s Roxana Kopetman contributed to this story.

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