Orange County children will be able take off their masks in schools beginning March 11, Gov. Gavin Newsom abruptly announced Monday morning. 

“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,” Newsom said in a news release. 

The late Monday morning announcement came ahead of a 1 p.m. news conference about school masks and other classroom pandemic precautions, hosted by Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency. 

During Tuesday’s news conference, Ghaly said mask mandates for indoor public areas – like grocery stores and other retailers – ends Tuesday. 

“So really starting tomorrow public indoor masking for unvaccinated and vaccinated is no longer required. It’s strongly recommended,” Ghaly said. 

But all people still have to wear masks in hospitals, public transit systems, jails, homeless shelters and nursing homes.

Ghaly also said nobody can be barred from wearing a mask. 

“We are saying loud and clear that those individuals are empowered to continue to make a choice, to keep themselves safe, to wear a mask if it’s the right choice for them,” he said. 

Throughout the pandemic, local OC parents and school board members have been at odds over masks – with some school boards calling on Newsom to end the mask mandate. 

[Read: ​​More OC School Districts to Consider Calling for Optional COVID-19 Masks in Classrooms]

“After March 11, in schools and child care facilities, masks will not be required but will be strongly recommended. Masks will still be required for everyone in high transmission settings like public transit, emergency shelters, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care facilities. As always, local jurisdictions may have additional requirements beyond the state guidance,” reads a Monday news release sent to reporters. 

At a Feb. 14 news conference, Ghaly said the masks could come back.

But, he said, officials didn’t have a threshold for mask mandate returns tied to positivity rates or cases per 100,000 residents at the time. 

“We don’t plan at this moment to set a threshold at which or below which something happens … we haven’t set that number” Ghaly said.

During Monday’s news conference, Ghaly said officials will be keeping an eye on the testing positivity rate and hospitalizations, but didn’t give a number at which point masks could come back.

Meanwhile, some local public health experts say state and local public health officials should make sure air purification systems are in place at schools before masks are allowed to come off. 

[Read: Orange County Students May Soon Be Able To Take Off Their Masks]

The state has pumped millions of dollars into local school districts throughout the state for such efforts. 

But an accounting hasn’t been conducted to see which schools have upgraded their airflow systems. 

Nakia Best, a UCI nursing school professor who works on an advisory group to schools, said that accounting of air purification systems is critical. 

“The ventilation systems in these schools are not up to par,” Best said in a Friday phone interview. “That’s an overhaul schools need to do at some point.” 

She said masks should stay on for now, until it’s certain the air purification systems have been overhauled. 

“It’s all about the kids being in school– they need to be in in-person learning with each other. So how do we do that safely? I think that’s keeping the mask on, especially when they’re in doors.”

In response to Voice of OC’s questions, Ghaly said there’s no official accounting of the airflow systems at schools. 

“I’m not aware if we have a record of which school districts did what,” He said. “But I do know that many many did make those investments.” 

Ghaly also said the state is offering awards to scientists throughout the state who come up with more effective ways to circulate clean air in businesses and schools to keep COVID-19 transmission levels low. 

In the meantime, Ghaly said the state is creating a task force to work with schools and businesses moving forward on a variety of pandemic precaution fronts – including schools. 

“Trust me, a part of that task force will be focused on schools.” 

Spencer Custodio is the Voice of OC civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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