When California told school districts they must still require masks for students and teachers indoors, the state left no room for doubt about its enforcement: If students refused, schools were to send them home.
But hours after that announcement on Monday, public health officials in Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration abruptly changed course and said school districts would decide for themselves how to enforce the mask mandate.
The reversal marked a bumpy rollout of the state's new coronavirus rules for California's schools, which are required to resume in-person instruction for the upcoming school year. Speaking after an event in Los Angeles Tuesday, Newsom downplayed the reversal, saying enforcement of mask-wearing has “always been a local responsibility.”
“All (the Department of Public Health) did was clarify that local responsibility, which is consistent with all the prior rule-making that has been in effect on mask-wearing going back to last year,” Newsom said.
But Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association, said the updated rule “is a huge difference in terms of how districts would operate and how the public is going to receive this guidance.”
The rules could also force districts into some tough decisions on enforcement in light of a new law Newsom signed last week. While schools are required to resume in-person instruction, the new law says schools must let students work from home if their parents or guardians say coming to school poses a health risk for them.
If schools decide to send students home for refusing to wear a mask, Flint said they would be “obligated to provide independent study in a really robust way that asks more of the district than has been done in the past.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said teachers and students who are fully vaccinated don’t have to wear masks indoors but recommended that students and staff stay at least 3 feet (1 meter) apart to reduce the spread of a disease that is primarily transmitted through the air.
State officials were worried that imposing social distancing would make it harder for some schools to accommodate all students. So, they made a choice: They won't require physical distancing in exchange for everyone wearing masks. The state plans to review the rules and possibly change them by Nov. 1.
Newsom faced heavy criticism for not moving more quickly to return students to classrooms during the last school year. Many districts, including Los Angeles with more than 550,000 K-12 students, only instituted part-time, in-person instruction for the final weeks of the semester.
The mask requirement angered some parents who say children will have added stress after already having two school years upended through remote learning and missed milestones like proms, sports, concerts and graduations.
Jonathan Zachreson, founder of the group Reopen California Schools, said his group has received $72,000 in donations to file a lawsuit challenging the state's mask mandate for schools. Zachreson said by requiring masks in schools but leaving enforcement up to local officials, the state is “trying to trick parents into who is actually making the decisions."
“Parents are much more organized this year,” he said. “We know what's going on.”
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, said public schools should reconsider mask requirements once hospitalization rates fall below five per 100,000 people and at least two-thirds of adults have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. While those thresholds have been met in some parts of California, Gandhi called the new rules reasonable.
She said that whether to require masks is a gray area because there is so little data about children.
“We’ve just got to get the kids back and then we can sort out those kinds of details," Gandhi said.
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a clinical professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California, said the rules go too far and are not based on local data. He said it's unreasonable “in a state of 40 million people, just to say everyone has to be the same.”