MILL VALLEY (KPIX 5) – Top health officials say an update on school masking requirements is on the way. But as a growing number of states roll back mandates, including in schools, many are wondering what is California waiting for and why.
"My own children asked me, 'Mom, we heard they're unmasking. Will we be able to do it at school too?'" said Chelsea Schlunt. "And I said, 'No' and my 9-year old's face completely dropped."
Masks are still required for eight hours a day and sometimes more on campus, and there's still no clear indication of when face coverings will become optional at schools, even as most Bay Area counties plan to drop the indoor mask mandate in most other settings next week.
A growing number health experts are emphasizing the risk of severe illness and death is drastically different now with vaccines and widespread immunity because of the omicron variant.
"Even for the unvaccinated child, their risk from COVID is a flu-like level risk," said UCSF Director of COVID Response Dr. Jeanne Noble.
When asked about a masking off-ramp for schools Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom highlighted student vaccination rates are substantially lower than adults, but acknowledged the growing tension among parents, school officials, and the largest teachers' union.
"Everybody has strong opinions, local boards and superintendents, county and the like and we're getting closer and closer to making public an announcement on mask wearing in our public schools," said Newsom.
Teachers from West Contra Costa County recently threatened to go on strike, over COVID safety concerns.
"Now they've had a lot of time to get boosted. They are very well protected. They don't need children to be masked to ensure that they maintain their health and their own safety on the job," said Noble.
"It's not much of a burden to bear. You've can have a mask on, it's a piece of cloth. We've gotten adjusted to it," said high-school student Jack Robbins.
But prolonged masking of young children is vastly different, said Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist.
"Talking to parents they've been almost sheepish and afraid to tell me they can't shake the feeling of concern that their child does seem a little off, a little bit more introverted," said Carmichael.
Other potential long-term harms include heightened anxiety, language loss, and emotional flattening, with children losing the desire to make facial expressions.
"If we remove and tamper with the role of facial expressions in everyday life for years on end, I'm very concerned with what it could do with their sense of emotion and connectedness with community," said Carmichael.
"The end of a mandate doesn't mean everyone has to take off their masks. It just means we don't need to require large numbers of young healthy people to continue to mask when it's not necessary for their health or for the health of those around them," said Noble.
KPIX 5 reached out to the California Teachers' Association. The union said it will not comment on the matter until state health officials make a definitive announcement on mask guidance for schools.
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