For the first time in two years, masks will no longer be required in Mountain View's elementary and middle school classrooms starting on Monday, March 28, although wearing a face covering will still be strongly recommended.
Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph announced the plan to drop the mask mandate at a Thursday, March 24, school board meeting. Whisman is one of the last districts in the area to drop the mask requirement. Many other districts followed the state's lead and moved to optional, though strongly recommended, masking on March 12. Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto is one of the few continuing to keep a mask requirement for now.
Mountain View Whisman opted to keep its rule in place indoors, citing higher case rates than nearby districts.
Instead, the district has been using its own internal data as a guide, largely relying on the number of pool tests that are coming back positive. Pool tests allow the district to test groups of students, typically by classroom, together. If a pool returns a positive result, each student gets tested individually. A positive pool result doesn't mean that all the students in the class have COVID-19, but rather that at least one person in the pool is triggering the positive result.
During the omicron surge in January, the district hit a peak of over 30% of pool tests coming back positive. With cases receding, the share of positive pools has now been hovering at around 3% or lower for four weeks.
Given the substantially lower rate of positive pool tests, Rudolph said the district is now ready to lift mask requirements.
"We feel really comfortable about this, but we will continue to monitor the data," Rudolph said. "We will continue to track our pool testing to make a determination about what comes next."
If the rate of positive pool tests exceeds 9%, Rudolph said the district will reinstate the mask requirement.
School board members generally voiced support for the move away from required indoor masking at Thursday's meeting.
"I'm optimistic that this is going to be the right move for our students," board member Laura Ramirez Berman said.
Board member Devon Conley said she appreciates all the effort district staff have put into making COVID-19 safety decisions, but said she would like the district to generally follow the county public health department's guidance.
"It has been incredibly difficult as a school board to be a public health agency," Conley said.
Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School Principal Vern Taylor spoke during the period for public comment to tell trustees that some of his staff members have expressed concern about a shift away from required masking. Taylor asked the board whether it could continue with the mask requirement in classrooms.
"The optional nature of mask wearing inside the classroom brings anxiety," Taylor said.
Starting on Monday, masks generally won't be required in classrooms, although there will be cases where a face covering is still mandatory. Anyone who isn't vaccinated will be required to wear a mask for 10 days after exposure to someone who tests positive for COVID-19, Rudolph said.
Multi-use rooms on campuses will be reopened on April 4 to distribute meals, but students will need to wear a mask while picking up their food. Eating will continue to take place outside.
Preschool students will also still have to wear a mask indoors, which Rudolph said is because they are currently too young to be vaccinated and aren't included in the on-campus testing protocols.
Spectators at indoor concerts, plays and sporting events are also required to wear a mask, although the requirement doesn't apply to the students who are playing or performing.
Parents will also now be allowed to come onto campus starting 15 minutes after dismissal. PTAs and other school activities will also be allowed after school, although wearing a mask will be required indoors.
Volunteers can come onto campus although they have to go through a clearance process and need to be vaccinated. The process differs for regular versus infrequent volunteers.
Cleaning protocols will continue, as will campus testing procedures. The school district also plans to give each student one take-home COVID-19 test kit before spring break.