Since California health officials decreed the end of the mask mandate for restaurants and grocery stores last week, frustrated parents have been asking: When can their kids take their masks off at school?
They didn't get any answers during a much anticipated press conference Monday hosted by California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, who said the state would wait until Feb. 28 to potentially change masking rules at schools.
The California Teachers Association, one of the state's largest unions with over 300,000 members, supported the decision to "pause and gather more information" before revising the mask mandate for schools. But some parents and educators, who until recently supported strict mask rules in the classroom, are losing their patience.
"I really started thinking, why aren't we talking about the masks coming off?" said Dr. Will Sheldon, an Oakland parent and a family medicine doctor. "There was no discussion of what the off-ramps are going to be."
Parents and educators interviewed by CalMatters said the social and emotional harms of long-term masking need to be weighed against what appear to be the minimal benefits of masking amid rising vaccination rates and receding case numbers.
Sheldon said his daughter has had a harder time making new friends because masks cover her facial expressions. But of greater concern, he said, are the kids he sees in his clinic who are deaf or have other language delays and rely on reading lips to learn speech and reading.
"I think they were a good idea early in the pandemic," Sheldon said. "At this point, I'm more than ready for them to change. I think we've gone to an extreme."
Meanwhile, public health experts are saying masks will play a smaller role in 2022's pandemic playbook.
"As omicron quiets down, we're approaching a point where we can take masks off," said Robert Schooley, a professor of medicine at UC San Diego. "But if I had a 5- to 12- year- old who wasn't vaccinated, I would still want them to keep the masks on until they get vaccinated. It's not always trivial when a child gets COVID."
High-quality, tight-fitting masks have been shown to protect against transmission, but they don't completely eliminate the risk of getting COVID-19. And with the low risk of serious illness for kids, some parents are saying it's time to lift the mask mandate and take a step towards normalcy.
While not all parents oppose masks in schools — CalMatters spoke to parents who thought they should embrace all measures to reduce the death count — some worry the masks are reducing their child's enthusiasm for learning.
"I want my son to feel excited and connected," said Patricia Johnson, an Oakland parent of a first grader. "That's what I've wanted from school all along. I want him to love school."
Jason Peplinski, the superintendent of Simi Valley Unified School District, said public health experts can't underestimate the effect wearing masks for two years has had on kids. He hopes the mandate lifts for all students. A middle ground, he said, would be a logistical nightmare.
"What I don't want to happen is for the governor to say if you're vaccinated you can unmask," Peplinski said. "That puts the onus on school districts."
Some teachers are also calling for an end to the mask mandate.
Bevin Abbe, a vocal music teacher at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley, said masks have been stifling her students' creative expression for too long. She worries that more introverted students are hiding behind their masks, delaying their social development.
Abbe said debate over masking has become heated in her county of Ventura. Her district's teachers union declined to take a position.
"Our union has chosen to respect the different views of our membership and society, at large," said union president Amanda Hogan. "We have not taken a position on masks in the past and are unlikely to in the future."
The California Department of Public Health issued its school mask mandate in July as most of the state's school districts were set to return to fully in-person instruction for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The mandate placed the responsibility of enforcement on local school officials.
As the omicron surge led to record case numbers among students, teachers and staff, many schools were pushed to a breaking point. But as case numbers decline, more states are starting to lift school mask mandates and taking steps towards normalcy. Lawmakers in some more conservative states are working to ban mask mandates altogether.
Simi Valley's Peplinski and parents opposing the mask mandate say it doesn't make sense for a vaccinated child to be able to eat at a restaurant or shop for groceries without a mask but have to put one on in the classroom. Public health experts, however, say the comparison isn't completely valid because education is compulsory and students spend most of their time at schools.
"If you want to go to a restaurant, that's your choice," said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine. "But kids need to be in schools, and I'd like to see them protected as much as possible."
Noymer said masks should be required at schools to eliminate the possibility of returning to virtual instruction. That said, he thinks the mandate could be lifted in the next month or so once case numbers and hospitalization rates are back down to where they were last May.
Noymer said the state could set various thresholds for case numbers, hospitalization rates and vaccination rates that would trigger an end to the mask mandate for schools. But on Monday, Ghaly provided no concrete metrics. He said the state would continue monitoring a variety of data points for the next two weeks.
Until then, some parents will remain exasperated.
"All they did was announce that they're having another press conference in two weeks," said Sheldon. "It felt like they were just kicking the can down the road."