California lifting mask mandates for students in school and unvaccinated people

California is lifting requirements that students wear masks in schools and unvaccinated people cover their faces indoors, the state announced Monday in a major change to rules regarding the pandemic. 

The changes were unveiled as part of a joint announcement with Oregon and Washington, which are also ending their mask requirements at schools. 

Unvaccinated people may ditch their masks indoors starting March 1 in California, though officials recommend they continue wearing them.

Students may abandon masks starting March 12, which may be a breath of fresh air for many who have grown tired of strapping on an N95 in their classrooms. 

"California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we’ve learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic. Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high," Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. "We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward." 

In Washington and Oregon, all the requirements will lift on March 12.

There are more than 7.5 million school-age children across the three states.

Individual jurisdictions, however, may keep masking rules in place if they choose.

Los Angeles Unified has already decided to lift the masks indoors. Oakland Unified said it's reviewing the new changes made by the state and not yet decided what it plans to do. Other Bay Area school districts have not yet stated what they will do. 

But some experts think they will fall in line with state and federal guidelines. 

"I think it will be difficult for individual school districts to go above and beyond CDC guidance," said UCSF infectious disease professor Dr. Monica Gandhi. 

Federal mask requirements still apply to all regardless of vaccination status in high-risk indoor settings such as public transportation, airports and taxis. Rules for other high-risk indoor settings could also vary by state.

The milestone, two years in the making, comes as much of the country relaxes public health orders, including school mask mandates, in an effort to restore normalcy and boost economic recovery as Americans learn to live with the virus.

Earlier this month, California became the first state to formally shift to an endemic approach to the coronavirus with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a plan that emphasizes prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns.

Newsom has come under growing pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the school mandate, which has increasingly become a polarizing issue among parents in California.

California is one of the last states in the country to make indoor masking for kids optional. The only other state that still hasn't announced an end-date is Hawaii.

While many parents still support wearing masks in schools, others have questioned why it’s necessary when they are no longer required to do so in supermarkets and elsewhere. On Feb. 15, California ended an indoor mask requirement for vaccinated people, but at that time left the rule in place for the unvaccinated and for schoolchildren.

Starting Tuesday in California, masks will no longer be required but "strongly recommended" for unvaccinated individuals in most indoor settings. The same shift will apply to K-12 schools and child care facilities starting March 12, the statement said.

The powerful California Teachers Association said it expected a mixed reaction to the announcement at schools across the country’s most populous state.

"Simply put, while some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid," CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement. The union has more than 300,000 members. "Change is never easy, and today’s announcement is bound to disrupt and destabilize school communities. As we transition to the next phase of living with COVID-19, we must go forward with respect, understanding and care for each other."

However, many teachers' unions and families have been concerned about returning to school mask-free because districts have not mandated vaccines for students.

For example, as of this month, nearly 28% of 5- to 11-year- olds were vaccinated statewide compared to California's average vaccination rate of 69.5%.

Still, other California school districts have already dropped mask mandates for students in recent weeks in open defiance of the state mandate.

The West Coast announcements come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased the federal mask guidance Friday, essentially saying the majority of Americans don’t need to wear masks in many indoor public places, including schools.

The new CDC guidance bases recommendations for restrictions such as masking on a new set of measures, with less focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. Under the new system, the CDC said that more than 70% of Americans live in places where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals and therefore can stop wearing masks in most indoor places.

The CDC had endorsed universal masking in schools regardless of virus levels in the community since July, but it now recommends masks in schools only in counties at high risk.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.