Though the state is dropping its school mask mandate at the end of the day on Friday, March 11, face coverings will continue to be required for now in Mountain View's elementary and middle school classrooms.
The Mountain View Whisman School District announced at a board meeting on Thursday night, March 10, that it plans to continue requiring masks indoors for at least two more weeks, but will no longer require people to mask outdoors.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said he plans to give the school board another update at its March 24 meeting and could change the guidelines at that point. The goal of all the district's safety measures, Rudolph said, is to keep as many students in class as possible.
"If wearing masks is what allows us to continue until the end of the year and not have any work stoppages, then ultimately I think all of us would agree that's the best decision," Rudolph said. "We want to make sure that safety drives a lot of our conversation."
While masks will remain indoors, the district is loosening restrictions in other ways. In addition to lifting outdoor masking, the district will allow spectators at events and children can go on field trips.
As the state shifts to recommending, but not requiring, masks in schools, individual districts still have the power to continue with more stringent requirements. In practice though, many local districts have followed the state's lead. The Los Altos, Palo Alto Unified, Menlo Park City, Sequoia Union High and Mountain View Los Altos Union High school districts are among those who have announced a move away from requiring masks, though they are still recommended.
Mountain View Whisman isn't alone in retaining a mask requirement. Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto is similarly going to keep its current requirements in place for at least two weeks.
Rudolph told the school board on Tuesday that Mountain View is different than neighboring towns like Los Altos and Palo Alto because it has seen higher COVID-19 case rates both in the community and at schools.
The district's decision about when to drop the indoor mask requirement will be largely based on the percentage of "pool tests" that are coming back positive, Rudolph said. With pool testing, the district tests classes together and if a pool returns a positive result, each student gets tested individually. According to Rudolph, 94% of students have opted into participating in the pool testing program.
During the omicron surge in January, as many as 32.5% of pools were coming back positive, according to data Rudolph presented Monday. By mid-February, that had dropped to 9% and last week only 3% of pools came back positive.
The district plans to lift the indoor mask requirement when the pool positivity rate stays below 9% for three consecutive weeks, Rudolph said, adding that the district's rules could also become more restrictive again if cases rise.
Board members were broadly supportive of the district's decision to keep indoor masking for now, but lift the outdoor requirement.
"It's nice to see this light at the end of this very long, dark tunnel," board member Laura Ramirez Berman said.
Board member Devon Conley said she appreciated the work district staff have put into the COVID-19 protocols, but would like to see Mountain View Whisman be aligned with the public health department by the fall.
"I look forward to when our students have some choice about whether or not they are wearing masks indoors," Conley said, adding that she anticipates many will continue wearing a mask inside, even if the requirement doesn't exist.
The one area where board members raised concerns was Rudolph's plan to allow individual teachers to continue requiring masks in their classrooms, even when the district ultimately drops its mandate. Rudolph said this was to help teachers feel safe, but multiple board members said they worried about putting the burden on teachers to decide masking policies.
"Our job as elected officials is to take the hit on policy and making decisions like that," Conley said. "It's going to make them a target in a way they haven't been yet."
Out of the five members of the public who addressed the board about its COVID-19 policies on Thursday, three also raised concerns about leaving it up to teachers.
Teachers' union president Sean Dechter said earlier in the meeting that out of the teachers who responded to a survey, 24% wanted to continue requiring masks both indoors and outdoors, 41% wanted to lift the outdoor mandate and 35% wanted to make masking optional both indoors and outdoors.
As the district moves away from outdoor masking and looks at the potential of lifting the requirement indoors, Rudolph said that the district wants to foster empathy and make sure students feel comfortable regardless of their choice on masking.
"This shouldn't be an opportunity where kids can bully each other because some kid chose to wear a mask or chose not to wear a mask," Rudolph said.
Part of the reason that Rudolph cited for being cautious about masking is the district's student vaccination rates. Districtwide, only 59% of students are confirmed to be fully vaccinated, according to school district records. That's similar to the 57% of 5- to 11-year-olds in the county overall who are vaccinated, according to Santa Clara County's data. In contrast, 92.6% of those 12 to 17 in the county are vaccinated.
Within Mountain View Whisman, confirmed vaccination rates vary greatly by school, from under 40% to 80%. However, Rudolph said the district will need to keep a uniform policy among schools.