LOS ANGELES—Amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, students in Los Angeles County must wear masks outdoors where physical distancing is difficult as they return to school, while staff will be required to wear medical-grade masks, according to the county health department’s guidelines updated Jan. 1.
Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, released updated health orders for the upcoming school year “in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.”
Both students and staff are required to wear masks “for all outdoor activities where physical distancing is not feasible, except while eating or drinking,” and staff are required to wear “upgraded masks”—surgical masks or “higher-level” personal protective equipment.
As for whether students should upgrade their masks, Los Angeles County is leaving the decision up to the parents, though students are “strongly recommended” to wear “well-fitting, non-cloth masks of multiple layers of non-woven material with a nose wire.”
“We are recommending upgraded masking, but we’re not requiring it, and that’s primarily to maintain some parental discretion, autonomy, and preference,” Dr. Robert Gilchick of the county health department told The Epoch Times. “We know through our research that [masking] really makes a difference in terms of transmission in schools. … But we didn’t think it was necessary to make a requirement for an upgrade for every student. So we’re still leaving some parental discretion there.”
The county health department also recommends all eligible staff and students receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster. Meanwhile, all students and staff exposed to someone with the virus are required to undergo COVID-19 testing, regardless of their vaccination or booster status.
Some school districts across the U.S. have delayed campus reopening due to a national spike in Omicron cases, according to Reuters.
Gilchick said that as of Jan. 3, the health department has “no intention of recommending a delay in return to campus.”
About 50 school districts in the county resumed classes on Jan. 3, while about 30 other districts will reopen Jan 10.
The Los Angeles Unified School District will resume classes on Jan. 11, and Jan. 10 has been designated as a “Pupil Free Day” for school site employees, according to the district’s Jan. 3 guidelines.
Gilchick acknowledged the difficulties and learning losses many students faced during remote learning.
“We know how much detriment there was during the long period when [students] were doing a distance learning only,” Gilchick said. “It affected mental health, it affected physical health, it affected social development. So the state and the county are very committed to doing whatever we can to keep schools as safe as possible so kids can stay in the classroom.”
Even with the safety measures, Gilchick said at this point the department still expects some outbreaks in schools.
“We pretty much expect that there will be [outbreaks in schools], but if it’s kept to a relatively low percentage of schools as has happened during the first term of the school year, the vast majority of students will be able to stay in class and learn with their peers and with their teachers in the same room.”
The outdoor mask mandate for K–12 schools comes after an email from a Los Angeles superintendent, shared by a parent on Twitter on Dec. 29, said the county health department was considering an outdoor mask mandate, as well as mandating that students upgrade their masks to either surgical grade or N95 masks because “cloth masks alone would not be sufficient.”
The email was widely shared and met with backlash from parents, as well as parent groups, who opposed student mask mandates.
Sharon McKeeman, founder of parent advocacy group Let Them Breathe, told The Epoch Times in a previous interview that children are having a hard time because they can’t see their teachers’ and classmates’ faces.
“We’re hearing from parents, counselors, and psychologists that students are feeling anxious and depressed because they’re not having that positive reinforcement of smiles, and they’re becoming withdrawn and antisocial,” McKeeman said. “We’re hearing from school administration that there’s a lot more violent and destructive behavior at school, and that the psychiatrist and counselors we’re speaking to are saying that it’s a direct result of not being able to see other human’s faces and [of] experiencing detachment.”
Let Them Breathe, which has more than 20,000 members across the nation, also filed a complaint in the San Diego County Superior Court in September regarding mask mandates for children.