California introduces UNIVERSAL masking in K-12 schools, will BAR students who refuse to mask up

California health officials have named universal masking and mass vaccination as key prerequisites for resuming full, in-person classes at K-12 schools in a new guidance issued for the upcoming school year.

All pupils and teachers, whether they have already received a Covid-19 vaccine or not, will have to mask up as California's schools prepare to reopen for good, the state Department of Public Health (CDPH) said in a guidance issued on Monday.

Under the new policy, schools will be compelled to “exclude students from campus” if they refuse to put on a mask, only exempting those unable to wear one due to medical reasons. Those students must find a “non-restrictive alternative,” such as a plastic shield, “as long as their condition permits it.”

The CDPH said it opted to keep the masking requirement but not physical distancing because masks are “one of the most effective measures” for stopping transmission of both aerosols and droplets, while social distancing helps to protect from droplets only.

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The “surest path to safe and full-person instruction,” the document says, is to vaccinate “all eligible individuals,” introduce “universal masking in schools, which enables no minimum physical distancing,” as well as to enforce “more targeted quarantine practices” and ensure “access to a robust COVID-19 testing program.”

They also cited “detrimental effects of differential mask policies,” saying such uneven rules could lead to “potential stigma, bullying, [or] isolation” of vaccinated as well as unvaccinated children, depending on "the culture and attitudes" prevalent in the community.

The guidance came into effect immediately, but will apply only to indoor instruction during the 2021-2022 school year. The new rules, including those about mask-wearing, will be reviewed again no later than November.  

The CDPH also left room for local health officials to tighten the screws by issuing “stricter guidance” if such a need arises.

The CDC gave school administrators plenty of leeway over which restrictions to scrap and which to keep for the next school year, leaving those decisions largely to local officials. 

While a non-binding federal guidance for K-12 schools issued last Friday called for masks only for those who are not fully vaccinated, the CDC also recommended maintaining at least 3 feet of physical distance between students in a classroom – a provision the CDPH ultimately decided against.

At the same time, the CDC said that “layered protection strategies” should be put in place, especially in schools that cater to children under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated under the FDA’s current emergency approvals, noting that “masking” and “physical distancing” remain the two key strategies to prevent the spread of the virus.

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