In-Depth: When will it be safe for California schools to lift mask mandates? Study offers framework

Posted at 4:23 PM, Feb 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-18 20:23:04-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – More and more states are lifting mask mandates in schools, but California is not following suit just yet.

California is one of 13 states with a classroom mask mandate still in effect, including Washington, Oregon, and Massachusetts. Seven of those 13 states have already announced the date when they will lift restrictions, all by mid-March.

Epidemiologists continue to debate whether the U.S. is ready to lift mask mandates at schools, even as states like California lift mask requirements in public indoor spaces for the vaccinated. Some argue that classrooms remain an exception, because so few children are vaccinated.

"I'm OK to lift the mask mandates in school. It's not going to impact infections in school," said University of Washington's Dr. Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist and professor with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Lifting requirements is appropriate, Mokdad said, because of dramatically declining case rates and population immunity. IHME estimates 73 percent of Americans now have some level of immunity to omicron, either from boosters or infection.

This week, researchers at Harvard University released a modeling study that suggested it's too soon to lift mask requirements in most U.S. elementary schools. But the metrics and guidelines laid out by the researchers suggest California is very close to a threshold that would be considered safe.

In a hypothetical elementary school of about 700 students and teachers, the researchers set various policy goals. Do you want to reduce the risk of child hospitalizations below 1 per 100,000 per month? How about reducing the risk of in-school transmission to one case or fewer per month? Then they modeled the conditions it would take to achieve those goals.

To achieve no more than ten new COVID cases in the school community per month, they found schools could safely lift mask requirements vaccination rates reached 25 percent in students and 70 percent in teachers, and the daily case rate in the community reached 14 cases per 100,000 or fewer.

California's vaccination rate exceeds those levels. As of Friday, 29 percent of children 5 through 11 were fully vaccinated, along with 80 percent of adults 18 and older. The vaccination rate among school employees is likely higher than 80 percent because of vaccination mandates.

However, California would not yet meet the study's criteria because of its daily case rate. Last week, California's daily case rate was 38 cases per 100,000. As of Wednesday, it dropped to 18, although the data is still considered preliminary.