Masks might soon come off at Orange County schools as California public health officials are expected to announce changes to COVID-19 protocols today for elementary and high schools throughout the state. 

Earlier this month, Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency, hinted that classroom masks could be coming off soon. 

“We’re getting to a place where we can relax the statewide masking requirements,” Ghaly told reporters during a Feb. 14 news conference.“Feb. 28, we anticipate we will be able to … give a date of when the masking requirement will move to a recommendation. We also know that this takes time.” 

But, Ghaly said, the expected changes might not take effect immediately and he didn’t say when the pandemic approach will change. 

“We must continue to work to ensure that there’s low risk of infection in schools,” Ghaly said earlier this month. “We continue to work with schools and education leaders, public health leaders across the state to make sure we’re staying current and doing what we can to create this environment in schools.”

With county supervisors seemingly poised to appoint a new public health officer, OC Public Health officials haven’t said much about whether they’re considering any local mandates beyond what the state requires. 

In LA county, Public Health Officer Barbara Ferrer relaxed the county’s mask mandate somewhat to allow for fully vaccinated people to go maskless, as long as businesses can verify they’re fully vaccinated, according to the LA Times. Unvaccinated people still have to mask.

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UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Sanghyuk Shin, said while removing masks is a step in the right direction, state public health officials should wait another couple of weeks before letting the masks drop. 

“I think it makes sense with the way the community transmission is low to remove mask mandates and then reimplement them when we see signs that community transmission is increasing,” Shin said in a Friday phone interview. 

Although the positivity rate is low, Shin said officials should keep the classroom mask mandate for a couple more weeks at least – that way it’s certain all the pandemic trends are heading in the right direction. 

“It would be beneficial to keep the masks on for a little bit longer,” Shin said. “Masks should be the first intervention to be considered and the last to be removed.” 

Nakia Best, a UCI nursing school professor who works on an advisory group to schools, said state public health officials should make sure the heating and air conditioning systems have been overhauled to better circulate clean air to reduce the chance of COVID spreading before dropping masks. 

“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.” 

The school advisory group has been pushing for better pandemic measures for two years.

It consists of officials from CHOC, the OC Department of Education, the county Health Care Agency, along with local pediatricians. 

Overhauled airflow systems “was one of the things we were talking about two years ago,” Best said. 

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While state officials pumped millions of dollars into local school districts in an effort to increase pandemic protocols, including airflow systems, it’s unclear how effective the efforts have been because no official accounting has been conducted.

“We got to have those conversations,” Best said. “I don’t know where that’s happening.”  

She said masks need to stay on for now. 

“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,” Best said. 

At the Feb. 14 news conference, Ghaly acknowledged the expected announcement will be met with mixed reactions from parents across the state. 

“That change is one I think is going to be met with a lot of excitement … and a lot of fear in other circles,” he said. 

Student protestors stand in the Santa Ana downtown civic center on Feb. 14, 2022 to advocate for “mask choice” in schools. Renee Elefante / VOICE OF OC Credit: RENEE ELEFANTE for Voice of OC

In response to Voice of OC questions, Ghaly also said state public health officials don’t plan on setting certain metrics for classroom mask mandates – like the positivity rate or cases per 100,000 people. 

“We don’t plan, at this moment, to set a threshold at which or below which something happens,” Ghaly said.

He also said the state has “a long way to go” on vaccinations for children. 

A majority of Orange County’s children ages 5 to 11 years old are not fully vaccinated.

According to data from the OC Health Care Agency, only about 30% of the roughly 268,000 children in that age range are vaccinated.

“Are we thinking about vulnerable populations? We got kids with chronic conditions like asthma or medical vulnerabilities –  they’re going back home to older adults. So there’s a lot to think about in terms of keeping everyone safe,” Best said.

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Meanwhile, just over 66% of children ages 12 to 17 years old are fully vaccinated. 

Children younger than 5 aren’t eligible for the vaccine yet.   

Both Best and Shin said federal, state and local public health officials should be focusing on vaccinating more children while the positivity rate is low – especially before masks begin dropping at schools. 

“We have this opportunity now – as these other public health mitigations are being lifted – that we should be sure our environment is as safe as possible and we really have a concerted effort to ensure vaccination coverage,” Shin said. 

Best said school districts should continue partnering with local health clinics and community organizations and step up vaccination efforts. 

“We got to make the vaccines accessible – go to the people to make it easier for them,” Best said, adding that school nurses also can help boost vaccinations. “They’re the health care experts in schools and they’re an important part of this.” 

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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