Pacific Grove Unified School District is preparing to reinstate its mask mandate in schools if COVID-19 cases and test positivity continue to increase.
“We have an abundance of caution for our students so that we can make it through the school year safely,” said Superintendent Ralph Gomez Porras.
In April, the district’s school board approved a policy that would require all students and staff to wear masks indoors if cases and test positivity reach the “moderate” threshold. This would mean a seven-day test positivity greater than 5% and a seven-day average case rate of more than 10 cases per 100,000 individuals.
If the district hits this threshold, masks would be mandated until test positivity and cases move back into the “low” category, where the district currently sits.
Currently, Monterey County COVID-19 data reports a seven-day test positivity of 4.3%, up from 3.7%, and a seven-day average case rate of 9.5, previously 7.7 per 100,000 residents.
Pacific Grove Unified School District is the only district on the Monterey Peninsula that has enacted this policy. Porras said that some parents and staff noticed case numbers and test positivity had begun to increase and were concerned that unless the district was prepared, an outbreak could occur.
“At the urgency of the parents, teachers and community and then also the administration, we felt that the threshold was a good way to go,” Porras explained.
Carmel Unified School District and Monterey Peninsula Unified School District plan to continue to follow county and state health department guidelines, which as of mid-February, shifted mask mandates in schools from required to recommended.
“I think that throughout the pandemic, a lot of health decisions have been pushed to school boards and superintendents,” said PK Diffenbaugh, Monterey Peninsula Unified’s superintendent. “The health professionals who have a background and expertise in epidemiology should be guiding our practices.”
Pacific Grove’s school district alerted parents to the potential change in mask requirements earlier this week. Porras said that the few responses he received from parents were very positive and expressed appreciation for the district’s caution.
Whether masks should be required in schools continues to be an issue. Parents in the county and state have been very vocal about their opinions on mask and vaccine mandates in schools. Some have felt so strongly that they’ve pulled their children from public school because of it.
Parents’ varying opinions on mask mandates is partially why the Carmel Unified and Monterey Peninsula Unified school districts have decided to follow county and state guidelines, rather than enact their own policies.
“I’m sure as we all know, we’ll have just as many parents calling to ask us to put masks on as we will telling us not to put them on, which is why we’ve just stuck with the health department,” said Carmel Unified School District Superintendent Ted Knight.
“In my experience, we have parents on all sides of this debate. I think that’s really why I have been insistent on following the health professionals’ guidance because there’s tons of opinions out there,” Diffenbaugh said. “I have gotten emails from parents concerned. I’ve gotten emails from parents who expressed that if masks come back, they’re going to pull their kids out of school.”
Despite masks being optional in schools, many students continue to wear them. Porras said that the majority of students in the Pacific Grove Unified School District continue to wear masks indoors. The number of Monterey Peninsula Unified students wearing masks differs by school and classroom, according to Diffenbaugh, but a lot of students, including his own two children, continue to wear them.
Karen Smith, the public information officer for Monterey County Health Department, said that the health department still recommends that people wear masks when gathering indoors in groups, including at school.
“It still makes sense to wear one. It’s still recommended, it’s just not required,” she said. “Which makes it tricky.”
Smith said that while the health department is always concerned about COVID-19 case increases, hospitalizations remain low in the county, despite the increase in test positivity and cases. The high vaccination rate in the county also helps, Smith said. Currently, 84.6% of eligible residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Monterey County.
While the county data shows that there have been 265 new cases, Smith estimates that that number is higher because it only accounts for tests that have gone through a commercial lab.
“That doesn’t count all the home tests that are done or over-the-counter tests if people test positive and they stay home,” she said. “So, there are some limitations in the data.”
The county’s data is updated every Monday and Thursday, so Pacific Grove’s school district won’t know until next week if the increase of cases and test positivity has pushed them into the moderate threshold.
But regardless of the district’s actions, Diffenbaugh and Knight plan to wait until they receive guidance from the health department to bring back mask mandates.
“When you’re in an environment where you have a lot of different individuals expressing their personal viewpoints, I think you have to have that north star that guides you,” Diffenbaugh said. “And to me, not being an epidemiologist myself, that north star is those health professionals who have the background and the training to provide that level of guidance to schools.”
Contributed by local news sources