California to require masks at schools, though CDC says they're not needed if vaccinated

LONG BEACH, CA - MARCH 24: Senior student Ariana Diaz with a plexiglass barrier in the art classroom of Art 2 teacher Patty Steponovich as students return to in-person instruction at St. Anthony Catholic High School in Long Beach March 24, 2021. The students have not returned to campus since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The hybrid model that will be used at St. Anthony's will allow 60% of the school's 445 students to return for full-time, in-person instruction and splitting those to rotating days so roughly 134 students per day on campus, while also continuing remote learning for those who opt to remain at home. On campus Covid-19 safety measures include temperature checks, face masks, social distancing and plexiglass barriers around desks. President of St. Anthony High School Gina Maguire says they are "working to get all students back on campus by May." St. Anthony Catholic High School on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Long Beach, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
California said that it will continue to require masks in school settings following updated CDC guidance that said vaccinated teachers and students don't need to wear masks. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

California will continue to require masks in school settings, state health officials announced Friday, even though federal health authorities released new guidelines saying vaccinated students and teachers no longer need to wear masks inside campus buildings.

"Masking is a simple and effective intervention that does not interfere with offering full in-person instruction," said California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Mark Ghaly. "At the outset of the new year, students should be able to walk into school without worrying about whether they will feel different or singled out for being vaccinated or unvaccinated — treating all kids the same will support a calm and supportive school environment.”

The recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also said schools should try and keep desks three feet apart, are not a mandate. The CDC guidance said prevention strategies, including indoor masking, should be utilized when it's not possible to maintain a distance of at least three feet in the classroom.

Ghaly said that not all school facilities in the state can accommodate physical distancing and "we will align with the CDC by implementing multiple layers of mitigation strategies, including continued masking and robust testing capacity.” The state's directive would also "ensure that all kids are treated the same," the California Department of Public Health said.

With the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus continuing to spread statewide, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health previously recommended that all residents wear masks in public indoor spaces — regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.

Here's what parents and educators need to know:

Can parents demand the right to have their children attend schools without masks?

Not in most situations in California. There are some children with disabilities who cannot manage masks or who cannot wear masks safely. These parents already have the right to seek an accommodation that includes not wearing a mask.

What is the situation in the Los Angeles Unified School District?

All students, teachers and staff have been required to wear masks on campus even if they are vaccinated. This policy has been in place since schools began to reopen in April. The only exceptions are for students or others who have special health or physical reasons and are unable to wear a mask.

Will California children have to be vaccinated to attend school in person?

There is currently no vaccine authorized for emergency use in children under the age of 12, and it is unclear how soon that will change. Even after the Food and Drug Administration authorizes one or more COVID-19 vaccines for younger children, it could take several more months — or even years — for the vaccines to receive full approval in this age group. Once immunizations receive full federal approval, they could become mandatory for nearly all students.

Do students have to remain three or six feet apart?

Rules vary from district to district in California.

The CDC said Friday that schools should continue to space students — and their desks — three feet apart in classrooms and distancing is not required among fully vaccinated students or staff. In LAUSD, the nation's second-largest school district, desks are three feet apart and are expected to stay that way in the fall.

The CDC does not deem any separation as needed among vaccinated children. Practically speaking, it could prove difficult to have different rules and procedures for different students. At middle schools, for example, some students will be eligible for shots and some won't be. But even at high schools, not every student will be vaccinated.

Do masks have to be worn outdoors by unvaccinated people at schools?

Schools generally don't require masks at recess or in most other outdoor situations. However, unvaccinated people are advised to wear masks if they are in a crowd for an extended period of time, like in the stands at a football game.

Are other school safety measures still needed?

Ventilation and hand-washing continue to be important. Students and staff also should stay home when they are sick.

And testing for infection remains an important way to prevent outbreaks. But the CDC said Friday people who are fully vaccinated do not need to participate in such screening.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.