As the first school year back on campus comes to a close, Covid infection rates in California again are on the rise, but with one distinct difference: Few districts are tightening up masking and other restrictions that were in place at the start of the year, even for large gatherings like graduations and proms.
California schoolchildren were told in mid-March they could officially ditch masks while indoors. The announcement from the California Department of Public Health came after several other states amended their COVID policies.
The San Jose Unified School District fell in line with the state’s policy change, declaring masks would be optional.
Yet year-end celebrations have become hot spots for Covid transmission in some districts. About 90 students at San Mateo High School tested positive for Covid after a prom at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco on April 9. In Sacramento, 21 people who attended the C.K. McClatchy High School junior prom at the city's Masonic Temple on April 23 tested positive for the virus.
This month, outbreaks seem to have become even more common. Last week, at least 65 students at Los Gatos High School tested positive for Covid, and 20 Marin County schools reported new Covid outbreaks. Nationwide, new Covid infections have increased substantially in the past month, with California adding more than 158,000 new cases during that time.
Covid dashboards, available on most school districts' websites, show large increases in the number of infections from March to April. Covid cases in San Diego Unified more than doubled, for example, while cases in Berkeley Public Schools and Dublin Unified increased almost five-fold. Infection rates in all three districts, and others, continue to track upward this month.
Despite the increases, the number of current Covid infections is far lower than the spike in January. And the mask requirements, regular Covid testing and social distancing that students experienced at the beginning of the school year are mostly gone.
“The attitude is we are going to plow through this, whatever increase that could possibly hit us,” said Brett McFadden, superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High School District. “We will push through. We haven't seen the same degree of sickness we saw before.”
The district, which serves 2,668 students in Grass Valley, had five cases of Covid in all of April and 10 in the first 11 days of May.
Nevada Joint Union, which dropped its mask mandate because of protests a few weeks before the state removed the requirement, isn't likely to bring masking back even if the state requires it again, McFadden said.
“With the controversy we went through two months ago concerning masks, I think that horse has left the barn,” he said. “Even if the state would mandate a return to masking, I don't think we would see sufficient 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 infectious than previous variants but does not seem to increase disease severity. BA.2 is the dominant variant in most regions of California.
“We are in a much different situation than we were in the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dean Blumberg, a UC Davis Health System pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we had no immunity to Covid. No one had experienced it before. It overwhelmed the health care systems.”
Now, Blumberg says, the virus is much less of a threat because much of the population has partial immunity through immunization or a previous infection. As a result, the vast majority of those who have become ill during this uptick have not been hospitalized.
Although people should continue to wear masks when inside and try to maintain social distance from people outside their family, it isn't feasible to require high school students to wear masks to the prom, he said. Ideally, testing and vaccination would be required to attend the dances, which are often held in large spaces like gyms, where there is more air to diffuse a virus, he said.
“Most kids aren't going to wear a mask,” he said. “They probably won't dance with their masks on. They are going to try to sneak a kiss or something.”
San Mateo Union High School District, which still requires that masks be worn on its campuses, didn't require them for the prom at the art museum, said Kevin Skelly, superintendent. The district also offered, but did not require, testing before the event.
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 took part in a state pilot program that brought specially trained dogs onto campus to sniff out Covid.
“I just think we have tried to do both things -- be safe and have lots of activities for kids,” Skelly said.
Pacific Grove Unified School District could have a mask mandate again soon. The district’s school board agreed in April that it would reinstate indoor mask mandates if the county's seven-day positivity rate increased to more than 5% and there is a seven-day average of more than 10 cases per 100,000 Monterey County residents. On Thursday, the county had reached 12.4 cases per 100,000 and had a 4.8% positivity rate.
Esther Kim, a junior and student member of the Chino Valley Unified school board, is aware there has been a surge in cases of Covid in the state, but she doesn't think it has impacted her school district much.
“It didn't raise that big of a conversation as it would have if Covid just started,” Kim said. “Everyone is exhausted dealing with Covid and Covid protocols."
The district had 72 cases of Covid on Tuesday, according to its website. About a quarter of the student population continues to wear a mask to school, Kim said.
“We are pushing for just returning 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.”