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COVID: Berkeley Unified reinstates indoor mask mandate through end of school year

BERKELEY – Officials with the Berkeley Unified School District announced Friday that masks would again be required in all indoor spaces starting Monday, May 23 through the end of the school year, due to rising COVID-19 case levels.

In a letter to school families, Superintendent Brent Stephens said the mask mandate comes following a recommendation from city's health officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez.

"Our collective goal in the final weeks of school is to ensure the last two weeks and accompanying celebrations can be attended by as many of our students and families as possible. We are experiencing high levels of COVID in our schools and community this week, and because of this strong recommendation from the City of Berkeley Public Health Officer, BUSD will reinstate mandated indoor masking on Monday, May 23," Stephens said.

Under the order, all people in schools or district facilities will be required to mask while indoors. Masking will also be required at indoor school events, including indoor graduation ceremonies that take place off campus.

Stephens said the district is currently experiencing a "significant increase" in COVID-19 cases among students and staff. The district is also experiencing an increase in classroom clusters, indicating likely COVID-19 transmission in schools.

The increase in COVID-19 cases is also leading to increased teacher absences. According to Stephens, only about 50% of teachers' absences have been filled by substitute teachers, leading to administrators working in classrooms and other teachers filling in for their colleagues.

"When we describe a cluster, what we mean is a set of cases in an individual classroom," Stephens said in an interview with KPIX 5. "And this seems to be a trend a bit different than previous surges, in that we're seeing five, six cases in classrooms throughout our school district right now."

Along with the indoor mask requirement, Stephens also asked staff to move meetings back onto Zoom and to move indoor events outdoors, if possible. Stephens stressed that graduations that have already been scheduled for indoor venues are not being asked to move outdoors due to the late notice.

Berkeley Unified previously dropped its mask requirement in early March, when the state shifted its guidance on masks in schools from required to "strongly recommended." Local jurisdictions continue to retain the right to implement stricter requirements.

The last day of school is scheduled for June 3.

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