It was supposed to be mask-free Monday for California school kids, but you couldn’t tell from watching Willow Glen Middle School eighth grader Trish Ha as she darted off to her first class. Though San Jose Unified School District adopted the state’s new mask-optional guidance, Ha was having none of it.
“I’m still going to wear my mask,” the 14-year-old said. “I don’t want to take it off because people might be a bit reckless.”
Ha was hardly alone. Mask-wearing has become so baked in that nine out of 10 kids at San Jose Unified opted to keep them on Monday, said district spokeswoman Jennifer Maddox, and many of the few who showed up bare faced slipped theirs back on to avoid standing out. Allegiance to masks was on display throughout the Bay Area on Monday, the first school day since the statewide K12 mask mandate lifted over the weekend.
Willow Glen Principal Paul Slayton even stood maskless outside, where they haven’t been required, between classes to show kids it’s OK.
“I’m trying to show tacit approval for those who don’t want to wear masks,” Slayton said.
Yet despite the state’s new relaxed rules, many school districts around the Bay Area and other parts of the state are still maintaining their own mask requirements.
Oakland Unified announced last week that it will keep its current indoor mask mandate for all students, staff, contractors, volunteers and visitors “at least through April 15,” citing concerns “about a potential post-spring break arises” in COVID-19 cases . It’s also one of the few to maintain outdoor masking requirements as well. The district added that it’s “consulting with our labor partners and other stakeholders and expect to announce a decision within two weeks.”
That didn’t seem to bother 16-year-olds Rhiannon Cogley and Aviva Powers, Oakland Technical High School debate team members.
“Some people are already pulling down their masks in class, and so I think it’s important that we’re not giving them more leniency,” said Powers, who was munching on pepperoni pizza during a lunch break. “I am immunocompromised and so is my stepmother and I constantly feel unsafe even with the mask policy.”
Cogley added that “every time the mask mandate has been lifted, COVID cases have literally spiked.”
At San Francisco Unified masks are optional for middle and high schools but they will be required for elementary students until April 2. Similarly, West Contra Costa Unified made masks optional for middle and high school students Monday, but said it will keep the mandate for elementary schools until April 15.
Pittsburg Unified decided Friday to continue its mask mandate for now but will “revisit this at each regular Board meeting and continue to use our local data to guide us.”
Elsewhere around the state, many of the largest school districts are keeping their students masked at least a few more weeks. San Diego Unified will require masks until April 4, after the district’s spring break. Los Angeles Unified said Friday it is “working with labor partners and other stakeholders to transition from required indoor masking” at an unspecified date. And Sacramento Unified said March 8 it will only make masks optional after Sacramento County remains at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s low community health impact level for four weeks.
Most of the state is in the CDC’s low level, where masks aren’t needed, but under the agency’s previous guidance most of the state would be considered to have substantial or high transmission warranting indoor mask wearing.
Parent advocates critical of the state’s slow pace of schools unwinding pandemic restrictions fear that continuing to make students wear masks will hurt their social and educational development, compounding harm from the previous year when most California children were taught remotely online.
“What’s disturbing about these districts not following public health guidance is that people who have no public health or medical training are making decisions based on politics, not science,” said Megan Bacigalupi, executive director of CA Parent Power, whose boys attend Oakland Unified schools .
In some places like East Contra Costa County’s Liberty Union High School District, masks became effectively optional at the start of the month for kids in Oakley and Brentwood, after the school board voted not to enforce the mask requirement before it expired March 12.
But at Antioch’s Black Diamond Middle School, math teacher Karlye Swift said most of her seventh grade class opted to stay masked Monday, as she did — her family got COVID-19 in 2020 and her 2-year-old is too young to be vaccinated .
“I’m wondering if it’s gonna be more of a gradual thing,” Swift said. “Middle-schoolers, they’re already going through an awkward phase, so I think some of them like to hide their faces.”
Back in Oakland, Victor Chan, 17, a student at Oakland Tech, said that although he prefers to wear a mask in school, it should be an option for students.
“Some people are comfortable without their masks and some people prefer to have their mask on,” Chan said. “I prefer to wear a mask but I’m not uncomfortable when I see people not wearing a mask.”
Classmate Angelo Hendricks, 17, said the mask is “uncomfortable and it’s hot.”
“But I’d rather be alive and hot than dead and cold,” Hendricks said.
Willow Glen Middle Schooler Diego Caraves said Monday that after two years of mask wearing, “I don’t even feel it on.”
Slayton, the principal greeting students on the playground mask-free, knows that in the two years since the pandemic first shut down schools and redefined life for students, teachers and their families, it’s difficult to flip a switch. Masks “just became the culture in the community,” he said. “How quickly it’ll change is really going to be interesting.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism