COVID is still everywhere it seems, but the back-to-school routine will be as close to “normal” as most students have seen since the start of the pandemic.
As K12 schools re-open this month, face masks will be optional for most California students, as they were last spring. Testing and quarantining are being dialed back. Schools are giving out rapid tests for students to take before returning to class from the summer break but aren’t demanding proof of a negative result.
And talk of a statewide vaccine mandate for students has been put on hold along with requirements for the shots that many school districts such as Oakland and West Contra Costa were planning last year.
“It’s kind of returning to the old adage of when you’re sick, stay home and when you’re better, come back,” said Megan Bacigalupi, of Oakland, who heads the CA Parent Power advocacy group that pushed for schools to reopen and allow families choices on COVID protection. “We need to give kids the normalcy in 2019 that they had back.”
Yet for many parents and teachers, there’s some unease about returning to school without face mask requirements while COVID-19 case rates across California are four times what they were when the statewide school mask mandate finally lifted in March.
Sapna Rao of Cupertino, home-schooled her 10-year-old daughter Aishwarya for much of the last school year after their district declined to continue the online distance learning program. They’ve been vaccinated and are big believers in the face masks she credits with keeping her family COVID-free so far, but she still frets that with so many kids coming together after summer trips, there will be outbreaks.
“She will mask up,” Rao said, “but it is a little bit concerning given that a lot of people will have traveled.”
Aishwarya said she is looking forward to school starting. She doesn’t mind wearing a mask all day — when she needs a break from it, she steps outside where virus transmission is less likely. But she’s missed seeing friends in class.
“Homeschooling is nice,” she said, “but boring.”
Mask requirements aren’t gone everywhere. While state health officials announced in June that masks would remain optional for the 2022–2023 school year, that doesn’t mean local health and school officials can’t require them if they believe it’s appropriate.
San Diego Unified, for one, adopted a policy in May in which masks would be required indoors at school when the county’s positive case rate and hospitalizations put it in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s high community risk level, as the health agency recommends. The county hit that level last month and remains there. The district required masks for summer school last month and hasn’t yet decided whether they will be required when classes resume Aug. 29.
But in Walnut Creek, Eagle Peak Montessori charter school this week said it will require students to continue wearing face masks. Tammy Yair said her 12- and 10-year-old sons don’t understand why they will have to mask up when their 3-year-old brother doesn’t have to at day care, and they’ve spent all summer unmasked.
“Everywhere else, you have no masks — to basketball, to the pool,” said Yair, who said she was denied a request to transfer her kids into regular public school. “Why now at Eagle Peak do we have to go backwards?”
Eagle Peak didn’t respond to requests for comment.
California was the first state to impose a stay-home lockdown order as the pandemic took hold in March 2020 and the slowest to reopen classrooms to in-person instruction. In March, the Golden State was among the last to drop statewide face mask requirements for schools — which most states didn’t impose in the first place.
Gov. Newsom has credited the state’s policies with saving lives from COVID. But it’s widely acknowledged that prolonged school closures hampered kids’ education and that they have suffered mentally and emotionally from isolation and stress.
Oakland Unified clung to its mask mandate a month longer than the state required, and Alameda County reimposed its indoor mask requirement for three weeks in June as new variants of the virus drove cases higher. Although the CDC says COVID levels remain high throughout the Bay Area, county health and school district officials haven’t called for new indoor mask mandates.
In an informational meeting for Oakland Unified parents, Sailaja Suresh, senior director of strategic initiatives at the district, said the threat posed by the virus at a time when vaccines and treatments are widely available and many already have recovered from COVID-19 is different, and many have lost patience with mandates.
“Feelings about this are deeply divided. There’s in many senses fewer things that we can force folks to do,” Suresh said. “We’re not starting the year where masks are mandated. We’re not starting the year where testing is required following an exposure. … We’re just going to continue to strongly recommend and provide access to those mitigation measures.”
Alameda County Public Health clinical guidance lead Dr. Joanna Locke said at the meeting that was a sound approach.
“There are people that really would feel more comfortable with a mandate and people that don’t ever want a mandate in place again,” Locke said. “At this point in the pandemic, we really need to be very judicious about our use of emergency orders, and I think we’re trying to switch people’s thinking from an idea that if it’s not mandated it’s not important.”
Carrie Anderson, a second grade teacher at Oakland’s Manzanita Community school, had mixed feelings about the changes as she prepared laptops and headphone sets in her classroom before kids return Monday. She’s vaccinated and has been able to avoid COVID-19 so far and “would like to keep it that way,” but the shots don’t seem to ward off infection with the latest hyper-contagious variant of the virus.
“I do have some trepidation about the ongoing COVID pandemic,” Anderson said. “At the same time, I’m thrilled that I don’t have to keep my mask on my face all the time. So it’s a real mixture. It’ll be interesting to see what ends up happening with COVID cases once we all start gathering.”
Contributed by local news sources