SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) -- Schoolchildren in California, Oregon and Washington will no longer be required to wear masks as part of new indoor mask policies the Democratic governors of all three states announced jointly on Monday.
"With declining case rates and hospitalizations across the West, California, Oregon and Washington are moving together to update their masking guidance," the governors said in a statement.
The new guidance will make face coverings a recommendation rather than a requirement at most indoor places in California starting Tuesday and at schools on March 12, regardless of vaccination status. In Washington and Oregon, all the requirements will lift on March 12.
Federal mask requirements will still apply in high-risk indoor settings such as public transportation, airports and taxis. Rules for other high-risk indoor settings could also vary by state.
The milestone, two years in the making, comes as much of the country relaxes public health orders, including school mask mandates, in an effort to restore normalcy and boost economic recovery as Americans learn to live with the virus.
"California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we've learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic," said California Gov. Gavin Newsom in a statement. "Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high. We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward."
"Two years ago today, we identified Oregon's first case of COVID-19," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in the statement. "On the West Coast our communities and economies are linked. Together, as we continue to recover from the Omicron surge, we will build resiliency and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic."
Earlier this month, California became the first state to formally shift to an endemic approach to the coronavirus with Newsom's announcement of a plan that emphasizes prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns.
Newsom has come under growing pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the school mandate, which has increasingly become a polarizing issue among parents in California.
While many parents still support wearing masks in schools, others have questioned why it's necessary when they no longer are required to do so in supermarkets and elsewhere. On Feb. 15 California ended an indoor mask requirement for vaccinated people, but at that time left the rule in place for the unvaccinated and for schoolchildren.
Monday's "strong recommendation" to keep masks on, is admittedly "nuanced."
It's not a requirement, but it's close.
"The strong recommendation is something to reinforce that we're not just moving from required to optional but that there's gradations here," said California Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.
Local superintendents are meeting with public health officials this week to determine what comes next, though the San Francisco Unified School District announced Monday afternoon it plans to keep an indoor masking mandate in place.
Marin County Superintendent of Schools Mary J. Burke believes data in her county shows masks can come off, but superintendents who report to her, will have final say.
"Individual school districts across the state will be making determination and there's the power. and the drama of local control," said Burke.
"I think we're all in pretty much agreement that it's appropriate to take masks off for a lot of people. It's really a question of is it now," said UC Berkeley infectious diseases expert Dr. John Swartzberg.
"We urge local school districts to continue to work with educators and families and to act cautiously while prioritizing the safety of students, educators, and their families," said California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd. "While some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid."
Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), released a response noting that the union, which represents 120,000 educational employees, supported changes based on science, and that's why they're glad there's a two-week transition.
"The two week time period for transitioning to the new policy will give local school districts and local public health agencies time to review local conditions and, in consultation with parents and educators, make the decision about when and where masking is appropriate in their schools," Freitas wrote. "Any decision on masking at the local level should be made with an equity lens so that the health and safety of our hardest hit communities, and especially our most vulnerable students, are prioritized. Districts must continue to provide high quality masks and ensure a safe environment for all staff and students who want or need to continue to wear them. Schools must also continue to have robust testing and proper ventilation in place before making masks optional.
The CFT's statement also called on Newsom and the state legislature to increase funding for vaccination campaigns.
"COVID vaccinations have proven to work, and will be critical to ensure the long term safety of our schools and communities. We urge the state of California and local school districts to double down on their vaccination campaigns for students and their families. This is especially critical for our low-income communities of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic," the statement said. "We will continue to work with local education agencies to strengthen proven mitigation efforts, including vaccination access, making high quality masks available to staff and students, sufficient testing, and ventilation upgrades.
Starting Tuesday in California, masks will no longer be required but "strongly recommended" for unvaccinated individuals in most indoor settings. The same shift will apply to K-12 schools and childcare facilities starting March 12, the statement said.
A handful of California school districts have already dropped mask mandates for students in recent weeks in open defiance of the state mandate.
The West Coast announcements come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased the federal mask guidance Friday, essentially saying the majority of Americans don't need to wear masks in many indoor public places, including schools.
The new CDC guidance bases recommendations for restrictions such as masking on a new set of measures, with less focus on positive test results and more on what's happening at hospitals. Under the new system, the CDC said that more than 70% of Americans live in places where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals and therefore can stop wearing masks in most indoor places.
The CDC had endorsed universal masking in schools regardless of virus levels in the community since July, but it now recommends masks in schools only in counties at high risk.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said health officials will announce new guidance for schools next week to give them time to prepare.
"Many businesses and families will continue choosing to wear masks," he said. "As we transition to this next phase, we will continue to move forward together carefully and cautiously."
Despite rising criticism from parents and some school administrators, Newsom had left the school mask requirements in place in California.
On Sunday, children and parents of "Mask Choice" rallied at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, holding signs demanding the end of mask requirements in schools.
"It's seen as this force field. It's been given too much credit. It's time to get our kids back to normal," said Laura Fagan.
"The California DPH has been the most conservative, the most restrictive of all the state departments of public health in the United States," said UCSF infectious diseases expert Dr. Monica Gandhi.
"I think we're all in pretty much agreement that it's appropriate to take masks off for a lot of people. It's really a question of is it now or will it be in a couple weeks?" said UC Berkeley infectious diseases expert Dr. John Swartzberg.
Under new CDC recommendations, the majority of school districts in California's 58 counties would be allowed to remove masks falling under "low or medium" levels of transmission.
Nearly every Bay Area county meets the criteria too, with the exception of Napa and Solano counties, which are still in the red.
"We are doing so much better than five and six weeks ago. The surge has dramatically come down," Swartzberg said. "Of course, we'd like to have the masks off with kids but it's not dangerous, having them on,"
In the latest UC Berkeley/IGS poll, 61 percent still support mask mandates in schools. Thirty-seven percent disapprove, with the remaining undecided.
Parents, students and teachers who spoke to KPIX 5 had mixed feelings about the possible changes.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we will be able to lose all these masks we wear all day long with kids and then vice versa," said Randy Monroe, a science teacher at Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek.
A parent at a school in Livermore told KPIX 5's Juliette Goodrich, "We are gonna family meeting to talk through that and see what they are comfortable with."
"I think that we should maybe still wear them because COVID is literally everywhere," said one second grade Livermore student.
While another student told KPIX 5, "It's not fun at all because you don't see anyone's smile at school."
Kenny Choi and Juliette Goodrich contributed to this story.
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