Covid rates rise in California schools, two months after removing classroom masks

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As the first school year back on campus draws to a close, Covid infection rates in California are on the rise again, but with a distinct difference: Few districts are tightening masking and other restrictions that were in place at the start of the year, even for large gatherings like graduations and proms.

California school children were told in mid-March that they could officially ditch the masks indoors. The California Department of Public Health’s announcement came after several other states changed their COVID policies.

The San Jose Unified School District aligned with the state’s policy change, saying masks would be optional.

Yet the holiday season has become hotspots for Covid transmission in some districts. About 90 San Mateo High School students tested positive for Covid after a ball at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on April 9. In Sacramento, 21 people who attended the CK McClatchy High School Junior Ball at the city’s Masonic Temple on April 23 have been tested. positive for the virus.

This month, outbreaks seem to have become even more frequent. Last week, at least 65 students at Los Gatos High School tested positive for Covid, and 20 schools in Marin County reported new Covid outbreaks. Nationally, new Covid infections have increased significantly over the past month, with California adding more than 158,000 new cases during this time.

Covid dashboards, available on most school district websites, show large increases in the number of infections from March to April. Covid cases at San Diego Unified have more than doubled, for example, while cases at Berkeley and Dublin Unified public schools have increased nearly fivefold. Infection rates in the three districts, and others, continue to rise this month.

Despite the increases, the number of current Covid infections is well below the January peak. And the mask requirements, regular Covid testing and social distancing pupils experienced at the start of the school year have mostly gone.

“The attitude is we’re going to get through this no matter what increase may hit us,” said Nevada Joint Union High School District superintendent Brett McFadden. ” We will visit you. We haven’t seen the same degree of disease that we’ve seen before.

The district, which serves 2,668 students in Grass Valley, recorded five Covid cases in April and 10 in the first 11 days of May.

Nevada Joint Union, which dropped its mask mandate due to protests weeks before the state scrapped the requirement, likely won’t bring back masking even if the state requires it again, McFadden said.

“With the controversy we went through two months ago regarding the masks, I think this horse has left the stable,” he said. “Even if the state mandated a return to masking, I don’t think we would see enough compliance with that.”

The increase in recent cases is due, in part, to one of the latest variants of Covid – omicron BA.2 – which is more contagious than previous variants but does not appear to increase the severity of the disease. BA.2 is the dominant variant in most parts of California.

“We’re in a very different situation than we were at the start of the pandemic,” said Dean Blumberg, a UC Davis Health System pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases. “At the start of the pandemic, we had no immunity against Covid. No one had experienced it before. This has overwhelmed health systems.

Now, says Blumberg, the virus is much less of a threat because much of the population has partial immunity through vaccination or previous infection. As a result, the vast majority of those who fell ill during this rise were not hospitalized.

Although people should continue to wear masks when indoors and try to maintain social distancing from people outside their families, it is not possible to require secondary school students to wear masks. at the ball, he said. Ideally, tests and vaccinations would be needed to attend dances, which often take place in large spaces like gymnasiums, where there is more air to spread a virus, he said.

“Most kids won’t wear a mask,” he said. “They probably won’t be dancing with their masks on. They’ll try to sneak a kiss or something.

The San Mateo Union school district, which still requires masks to be worn on its campuses, didn’t need them for the prom at the art museum, said Kevin Skelly, superintendent. The district also offered, but did not require, pre-event testing.

District policies changed after the outbreak, with all subsequent proms requiring students to wear masks indoors and show proof of a negative Covid test. The district also participated in a state pilot program that brought specially trained dogs to campus to sniff out Covid.

“I just think we tried to do both things – be safe and have lots of activities for the kids,” Skelly said.

The Pacific Grove Unified School District may soon have a mask mandate again. The district school board agreed in April that it would reinstate indoor mask mandates if the county’s seven-day positivity rate increases to more than 5% and there is a seven-day average of more than 10 cases per 100,000 population in Monterey County. As of Thursday, the county had reached 12.4 cases per 100,000 and had a positivity rate of 4.8%.

Esther Kim, a junior member and student of the Chino Valley Unified School Board, is aware that there has been an increase in Covid cases in the state, but she doesn’t think it has had much of an impact on her district. school.

“It didn’t raise as big of a conversation as if Covid had just started,” Kim said. “Everyone is exhausted with the Covid and Covid protocols.”

The district had 72 Covid cases on Tuesday, according to its website. About a quarter of the student body continues to wear a mask at school, Kim said.

“We are pushing to get back to normal,” she said. “Everything in person. Make everyone feel like everyone is back to pre-Covid and make sure all of our students are recovering from the (emotional) damage Covid has caused.

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