SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Schoolchildren in California, Oregon and Washington will no longer be required to wear masks as part of new indoor mask policies the Democratic governors of all three states announced jointly on Monday.
“With declining case rates and hospitalizations across the West, California, Oregon and Washington are moving together to update their masking guidance,” the governors said in a statement. There are more than 7.5 million school-age children across the three states, which have had some of the strictest coronavirus safety measures during the pandemic.
The new guidance will make face coverings strongly recommended rather than a requirement at most indoor places in California starting Tuesday and at schools on March 12, regardless of vaccination status. In Washington and Oregon, all the requirements will lift on March 12. In all three states, the decision of whether to follow the state guidance will now rest with school districts.
The milestone, two years in the making, comes as much of the country relaxes public health orders, including school mask mandates, in an effort to restore normalcy and boost economic recovery. The changes reflect a growing sense that the virus is not going away and Americans need to learn to live with it. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, announced Sunday that the state’s masking requirements in schools would be lifted by March 2. New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts and others recently made similar adjustments to ease restrictions for schools.
The announcements signal a turning point that is poignant in its timing, coming almost exactly two years after American cities began shutting down to prevent COVID-19′s spread. California was the first state to announce a shutdown with stay-at-home orders in March 2020, followed soon after by other states.
“Two years ago today, we identified Oregon’s first case of COVID-19,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in the statement. “On the West Coast our communities and economies are linked. Together, as we continue to recover from the Omicron surge, we will build resiliency and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic.”
Earlier this month, California became the first state to formally shift to an endemic approach to the coronavirus with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a plan that emphasizes prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns.
Newsom has come under growing pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the school mandate, which has increasingly become a polarizing issue among parents, with some questioning why it's still necessary when masks are no longer required in other public places.
The powerful California Teachers Association said it expected a mixed reaction to the announcement.
“While some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid," CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement. The union has more than 300,000 members. “Change is never easy, and today's announcement is bound to disrupt and destabilize school communities."
A handful of California school districts have already dropped mask mandates for students in recent weeks in open defiance of the state mandate. Meanwhile, a survey published last week by the UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that more than 60% of California parents still support wearing masks in schools.
In Connecticut, Monday marked the first day of classes since the state ended its school mask mandate. Kindergarten teacher Rochelle Brown said 15 of her 17 students came to school wearing masks, and she is still wearing a mask in class herself.
“This is normalcy for them,” said Brown, a teacher at Poquonock Elementary School in Windsor, Connecticut, where a lot of her students have never known school without a mask. “I didn’t really hear a lot of conversation with the kids saying, ‘Oh, there’s that child, they’re not wearing their mask.’ They just did what they normally do every day.”
The West Coast announcements come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased the federal mask guidance Friday, essentially saying the majority of Americans don’t need to wear masks in many indoor public places, including schools. Federal mask mandates still apply in high-risk indoor settings such as public transportation, in airports and in taxis.
The new CDC guidelines are based on measures focused more on what’s happening at hospitals than on test results. The CDC said that more than 70% of Americans live in places where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals and therefore can stop wearing masks in most indoor places.
The CDC had endorsed universal masking in schools regardless of virus levels in the community since July, but it is now is recommending masks only in counties at high risk.
Based on that criteria, 16 of Oregon’s 36 counties fall under the “high” level of transmission. Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state epidemiologist, said he hopes community leaders will use the CDC framework in “guiding their decisions” about masking.
California and Washington also have several counties still listed as high risk, but projections show that case numbers and hospitalizations will continue to drop over the coming weeks, officials said.
“We’re turning a page in our fight against the COVID virus,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday during a news conference.
Inslee said in a separate statement that he expects many businesses and families to continue choosing to wear masks. “As we transition to this next phase, we will continue to move forward together carefully and cautiously," he said.
Gecker reported from Alameda County. Associated Press writers Sara Cline in Portland, Oregon, Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington and Susan Haigh in Hartford, Conn. contributed to this report.