Santa Clara County schools make masks optional

While some San Jose school districts allow optional masking in accordance with new state and public health mandates, others still require them.

Nearly two years after Governor Gavin Newsom closed schools due to COVID-19, he announced that indoor masking in schools would no longer be necessary beginning March 12. Although case rates and hospitalizations are declining, he still recommends that schools continue to wear masks. As of early March, Santa Clara County no longer requires masks indoors.

Masks will still be required in high-transmission settings such as public transportation, homeless shelters, and correctional and health care facilities.

One of the school districts that will keep the masks on is the Alum Rock Union School District. Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said the district will continue with the policy of keeping students and employees safe, since most of its students are not vaccinated.

“We have been blessed with little opposition from our families,” he said, “and the staff feels that it is the best protection we have at this time.”

San Jose Unified School District spokeswoman Jennifer Maddox said the district will align with state and public health guidelines. Beginning March 14, masks will no longer be required in SJUSD schools.

“Wearing a properly fitting mask will be strongly encouraged, and we will support those who choose to continue to wear a mask,” the school district said in a statement. “This updated guidance begins a transition to treating COVID like other illnesses, like the flu.”

Although Maddox said parents and students haven’t made mask-wearing an issue during the pandemic, in recent weeks the district began listening to families who wanted the policy relaxed.

“I think everyone is ready to get closer to getting back to normal,” he told San José Spotlight, noting that the district is unsure how many students and workers will come out in the open. She suspects that large numbers will continue to use them.

Santa Teresa High School student Lily Nakagawa (right) said she is used to wearing a mask indoors at school. She would rather wear a mask than go back to remote learning. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Other school districts are still determining a timeline for updating mask policies.

Aaron Brengard, director of safety, child welfare and attendance for the Evergreen School District, said the district lifted outdoor mask requirements on March 3. He said the school district is discussing plans to allow optional indoor mask wearing.

The school district is also working to develop innovative site-based metrics that affect masking and other mitigation strategies. It would report COVID infections to the county within 24 hours for contact tracing and dictate whether masks must be worn at each school. The district would also notify employees and families related to the infections.

In November, the school district allowed students to remove their masks during sports. I had planned to make outdoor masking optional in January, but omicron changed that. Brengard said COVID cases rose from four before the break to 398 the following week.

“We’ve been waiting for an opportunity for those numbers to come down,” Brengard told San José Spotlight. “We monitor testing and our (COVID) cases are low. We are at seven this week.

Before making any changes, the district ensured it had a full inventory of personal protective equipment and spoke with students about the social and emotional impact of removing masks. They explained that if the conditions changed, the masking would return.

Since the policy change, only a small number of students have removed their masks outdoors, Brengard said, including her eighth-grade daughter. He said that she likes to wear her mask because it covers her acne and that she doesn’t have to wear makeup.

At Santa Teresa High School in the East Side Union High School District, some students still choose to wear masks outdoors. Student Lily Nakagawa said that she is willing to wear a mask to school.

“I really don’t care,” he said. “I’d rather wear a mask and stay in person at school than have to go back online.”

Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee said the district is implementing an optional indoor mask policy. He said that while residents have advocated making masks optional, some students say removing them can cause anxiety.

“This is going to be a difficult adjustment for many because we have gotten used to wearing masks,” he told San José Spotlight.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [correo electrónico protegido]

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