Orange County’s children might be able to drop their masks at schools soon after state public health officials hinted at giving a date from switching their classroom mask mandate to a recommendation. 

“We’re getting to a place where we can relax the statewide masking requirements. We’ll today not make a change … but on February 28, we will reassess the data,” said Secretary of the state Health and Human Services department, Dr. Mark Ghaly, at a Monday news conference. 

Ghaly also said state public health officials are going to try to get as many children 5 years old and up vaccinated.

But, in response to Voice of OC’s questions, officials said they aren’t tying their reevaluation of the mask mandate to how many kids get vaccinated. 

“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, adding that officials “have a long way to go” on student vaccinations. 

He stressed the importance of vaccinations. 

“It is an important, one of the most important mitigation strategies that we’ve seen,” Ghaly said. “Think right now the point is that as we anticipate changes, now is a good time to get vaccinated and we encourage people to get vaccinated.” 

Meanwhile, the universal indoor mask mandate for all Californians going into retailers or public service buildings, is expected to drop Wednesday. 

Schools across OC faced waves of student absences and staff shortages following the return from the winter break during the height of the Omicron surge. 

[Read: Some OC School Districts Have Hundreds of Confirmed COVID-19 Cases After Winter Break]

The wave of cases caused some school districts to shut down their COVID-19 case reporting dashboard, angering many parents in OC.  

Some parents and teachers were calling on state officials to allow for a temporary switch to online schooling as the county’s COVID testing positivity climbed to nearly 30%.

By the end of January, cases and absences started declining for schools throughout OC. 

[Read: School Absences Declining as OC’s Fourth COVID Wave May Be Cresting]

State public health officials and lawmakers have repeatedly said there’s no going back to online learning during the pandemic. 

Ghaly reiterated that point during Monday’s news conference. 

“We are prioritizing – heavily – in person instruction with no substitute,” Ghaly said, adding that it’s an important place for children to build social skills and that many kids get their meals through school programs. 

He also said the classroom mask mandate wasn’t designed to hang around forever. 

“Masking requirements weren’t put in place to be there forever,” Ghaly said. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when (the mandate ends).” 

If declining case and hospitalization trends hold, Ghaly said, the mask mandate will be rescinded at some point.

“Given what we are seeing today … anticipating that on Feb. 28 announcing a date for when we move from a (mask) requirement to a strong recommendation,” Ghaly said. 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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