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San Francisco public schools won’t drop masks despite city’s health officials and California lifting mandate – San Francisco Chronicle

For the first time in two years, many students across California will get to walk into class without a mask starting on March 12, but San Francisco public school kids won’t be among them.

While vaccination rates are high and transmission rates are low in San Francisco, school officials said Monday that there will be no change to masking protocols.

“Universal indoor masking will continue to be in effect at SFUSD as part of our layered approach to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” said district Deputy Superintendent Gentle Blythe.

The decision stands in contrast to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which announced late Monday that it would follow the state’s lead and will not require masks in schools when the mandate lifts, although they will still be strongly recommended.

“Masks are still an important prevention tool for now and in the future, and we may need to rely on masks again if we see new surges in cases or new variants,” said health officer, Dr. Susan Philip. “For now, with case rates continuing to drop, this is a safe step in a direction toward fewer restrictions.”

Health officials said they would be working with school system in the coming days to provide guidance and assistance.

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Despite the public health stance, any changes to the district policy would be part of a broader conversation with both county health officials and labor groups, Bythe said. The teachers union has offered no specifics on what would need to change for the mask mandate to be lifted. District officials said the decision by local health officials would not change the district’s position.

It’s likely that many private and charter schools will opt to remove mask requirements when the state mandate lifts, which could put pressure on the district and school board to follow that step.

District parent Cindy Burg said she was thrilled when the state announced the change Monday, saying it should be a choice to mask at this point. But it became clear within an hour that her son, who is in the second grade, would not be able to take his off anytime soon.

“It is disappointing to hear that in a county with some of the lowest rates in the country and some of the highest vaccination rates, we cannot lift the mask mandate for our kids,” she said, adding state and federal officials — and science — now say it’s time to do so.

“We’ve been masking religiously since the moment it was required,” she said. “Now it’s time to give people a choice.”

More than 87% of those 5 and older in San Francisco are fully vaccinated, according to city officials, although among those 5 to 11, an estimated 69% have had the complete series of shots.

Yet among children under 11, vaccination rates in the city vary widely by race and ethnicity, with just 29% of Black children and 48% of Hispanic children fully vaccinated compared to 81% of Asian and 64% of white children. Pacific Islander and American Indian students also have lower rates.

“We are listening to the needs of the community and working on tailoring solutions to bridge these gaps so that all children in San Francisco can receive the best defense against the virus,” Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco director of health, said in a recent statement.

San Francisco public health officials did not respond to a request for comment on whether they would follow the state’s direction or impose a local mandate to continuing mask requirements in public and private schools.

Many other large urban cities are ditching mask mandates in schools, including Denver and Detroit, with New York City expected to lift the requirement March 7 if case counts remain low.

In California, many districts, including Oakland, were waiting on county guidance before deciding when to drop the mandate. Alameda County was expected to decide in the coming days whether to follow the state’s position.

In San Diego, district officials said that they will consider lifting mask requirements when the county drops from the high-risk tier to moderate-risk.

San Francisco board member Alison Collins tweeted Monday that “lifting mask mandates too soon has the potential to push even more educators out of the classroom.”

Board President Gabriela López and Vice President Jenny Lam did not respond to requests for comment. López and Collins were recently recalled.

In the meantime, UCSF Dr. Jeanne Noble said science not fear should dictate policies.

Schools have been lumped in with high-risk settings including health care sites, homeless shelters and prisons, despite young people having a very low risk of serious illness, said Noble, director of COVID response at UCSF Emergency Department.

It doesn’t make sense to let unvaccinated people go without masks in restaurants, bars and other indoor locations, as now allowed by the state, but require low-risk students to wear masks all day.

“It defies logic,” she said, adding continuing school mask mandates is less about science and more about fear-based policy and teachers union politics.

The San Francisco teachers union President Cassondra Curiel said she looks forward to finding “a collaborative path to ease mask requirements based on the needs of San Francisco students, families, staff, and educators.”

“With low numbers of community transmission, continued access to masks and testing outlined by our health and safety agreement, and vaccinations, boosters, and proper ventilation, we support allowing educators, staff, and students to mask up based on what feels safest for them. We remain committed to protecting the most vulnerable and support those who choose to continue wearing a mask once the mandate is lifted locally,” she added.

The city and San Francisco Unified has been among the more conservative communities in terms of pandemic protocols and health and safety mandates, often preceding or exceeding state or federal guidelines.

This has suited parent Jianqiao Zhen just fine.

With a daughter in high school and a son in middle school — and a long list of acquaintances and family who have had COVID — he’s not ready to go back to normal.

“Personally, I think the San Francisco school district should continue with the mask mandate indoors,” he said through a Chinese language translator, adding he’d like to see his children and all others wear masks outside too except during strenuous sporting activities. “Even though right now we see the pandemic is slowing down, I believe we need to delay the removal of the mask mandates.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Jilltucker

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