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San Diego Unified School District will make masks optional starting April 4

COVID-19

The district’s announcement comes a day after the CDC classifies San Diego County as having ‘low’ levels of COVID-19.

Masks will be optional for San Diego Unified School District students, staff and visitors starting Monday, April 4, when students return from spring break, the district announced.

“As COVID-19 cases in our community have started to fall, we have been working with our scientific and medical experts to plan for an ‘offramp’ to end some of the more restrictive health measures in place,” the district said in a March 4 email to staff and families.

A day earlier, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified San Diego County as having a “low” level of COVID-19, meaning it’s unnecessary for masks to be worn indoors, including in schools, according to CDC recommendations.

That was the first criterion that needed to be cleared for San Diego Unified to consider easing its indoor mask requirement. It lifted its outdoor mask mandate Feb. 16 but said masks still would be required indoors.

California is requiring that masks be worn indoors by students and staff at schools through Friday, March 11. After that, school districts can decide whether to continue requiring masks or make them optional.

Many school districts in San Diego County have announced they will make masks optional starting Monday, March 14. But some, like San Diego Unified, have decided to keep requiring masks past March 11.

The debate over school masks and other COVID measures has been heated at times throughout the county, including La Jolla. Last month, a few La Jolla Elementary School parents had their children unmask and refuse to comply with the indoor mask policy. The following week, groups of students and their parents rallied in front of Torrey Pines Elementary School to support masking and other COVID safety measures in schools.

Earlier this week, several counties, including San Diego, were in the “high” COVID level category. The CDC’s guidelines recommend certain safety measures for counties based on whether they have a low, medium or high COVID level, which is based on coronavirus case rates and COVID-related hospitalizations.

San Diego Unified leaders have said they would consult with UC San Diego health professionals about the appropriate time to ease its masking requirement once the county exited the “high” level.

Dr. Howard Taras, a UCSD pediatrician who has been advising San Diego Unified and other school districts about COVID, said he thinks the county reached the “low” level classification not so much because its coronavirus case rate is very low but because its COVID hospitalizations are low.

San Diego County had a rate of 159 cases per 100,000 people over the seven days before March 3, according to the CDC.

Taras said deciding when it’s safe to lift the school mask requirement now depends on what people value.

“If you define ‘safe’ as very low likelihood that teachers will need to be out [because of COVID isolation or quarantine] or that students with special health care needs have a very low risk of getting COVID at school, then my answer would be to wait until case rates drop somewhat more,” Taras wrote in an email. “So it’s really a community values question at this stage.”

San Diego Unified will continue other COVID safety measures including using air filters in classrooms, coronavirus testing and contact tracing. The district said it also will give students and staff at-home rapid coronavirus tests to use when they return to school from spring break.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.