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San Diego Unified will require masks outdoors at schools, not just inside

Staff members, signs and the Muirlands Middle School mascot welcome students to the La Jolla campus in April.
Staff members, signs and the Muirlands Middle School mascot welcome students to the La Jolla campus in April with mask requirements in place.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

State rules currently require only indoor masking. SDUSD says its new policy is meant to keep kids safe and in school.

The San Diego Unified School District announced Aug. 26 that it will require students and staff members on school campuses to wear masks outdoors — not just indoors, which is the state requirement — in an attempt to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“It’s the safest way of continuing to keep kids safe and continuing to minimize the possibility that the virus could spread on a school campus,” said SDUSD board President Richard Barrera.

The new policy does not mean students will be wearing masks every minute they’re on campus. Students can take off masks outdoors while eating, the district said. They also can remove their masks during “mask breaks,” P.E. classes, sports and performing arts programs. During those times, students should stay six feet from one another, the district said.

The announcement came four days before the first day of San Diego Unified’s traditional school year Monday, Aug. 30.

The district hopes the new outdoor masking policy will help reduce the number of students who have to miss school due to coronavirus isolation or quarantine requirements.

Students who test positive for the virus must isolate at home for at least 10 days.

Also, students or staff who come in close contact with someone who tests positive must quarantine at home for 10 days. There are exceptions: They don’t have to leave school if they are asymptomatic and are fully vaccinated, if they have already recovered from COVID-19 recently, or if both the infected person and the close contact were wearing masks and the close contact agrees to regular coronavirus testing.

School officials generally want to avoid sending students home, not only because kids will miss out on in-person learning but also because more student absences mean fewer days for which public schools can claim attendance, which affects how much schools are paid.

In the first few weeks of the new school year, thousands of students in other California districts have missed days of school due to quarantines or isolation.

In Los Angeles Unified, which also requires outdoor masking, 3,500 students missed at least one day during their first week of school this month due to close-contact quarantines. An additional 3,000 students had to isolate at home because they tested positive for the virus. Those 6,500 students represent about 1.4 percent of the district’s total.

“Absolutely, one of our biggest concerns over the first couple weeks of school is having to have situations to send students home,” Barrera said. “Anything we can do to minimize that possibility, such as the outdoor mask policy, is something we want to do.”

A new research study co-led by an atmospheric chemist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla has determined that most respiratory viruses, not just the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, all can spread via the air.

San Diego Unified is taking a stricter stance on mask enforcement than some other districts.

If a student’s parents don’t want their child to wear a mask to school, and if their child doesn’t qualify for a medical exemption, the student won’t be allowed to go to campus, Barrera said. The student will be given the option of learning at home via independent study instead.

Barrera said he’s not worried about backlash from people who are against masks. He said San Diego Unified has heard from more district parents who are concerned about schools being safe enough.

The group Californians for Safe Schools, formerly San Diegans for Safe Schools, recently called on San Diego Unified to use stricter coronavirus safety measures amid the fast-spreading Delta variant. The group called for outdoor masking in crowded spaces, physical distancing during lunch and coronavirus testing at every school at least once a week.

“Overwhelmingly, the parents that we hear from are worried about ... are the schools gonna be safe and are we gonna keep their kids safe,” Barrera said.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.