Middle school students walk to advisory on March 4 — many choosing to continue to wear their masks while outside. (Photo by Arijit Trivedi)

New mask-optional policies set in place

California COVID-19 masking mandates are evolving as infection rates fall. Following state and country guidance, Sacramento Country Day School ditched outdoor masking requirements Feb. 28. During the week that followed some students unmasked outside and some did not. No one seemed to mind either way.

In another advancement, the state also is ending the indoor masking mandate for K-12 schools on March 11. In response, on March 14, the school will follow suit, leaving the decision to mask indoors up to the students and their families, although it will remain strongly encouraged. A March 6 email confirmed this.

“Parents should determine for themselves whether to instruct their students to keep masks on when outdoors. We will actively support anyone who chooses to continue masking when outside,” Head of School Lee Thomsen wrote in a Feb. 18 message to the school.

He explained that Gov. Newsom’s decision to drop the statewide mandate was one of three factors that culminated in the school’s decision to end the outdoor mandate.

“It was a significant step on the part of the state, and we felt that there would be no better time to make our own move toward normalcy,” Thomsen said.

Second, Thomsen noted that of the cases contracted in January, none could be traced back to an outdoor transmission on campus, a fact he believes will prove comfort for many.

Finally, in spite of a peak of 3% positivity rate on campus in January, less than 1% of the community tested positive for the virus as of Feb. 18. This statistic includes data from both on-campus testing and self-reported cases, Thomsen said. Still, many students fear that the timing might cause chaos because following the winter break, the school and the state experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The CDC attributed this rise to both the increased prevalence of the omicron variant and widespread travel during the holidays. Although omicron variant cases are in a gradual decline, the mid-winter break provided an opportunity for increased travel, one that many families capitalized upon.

Freshman Ashley Lattyak voiced concerns about increased travel.

“As glad as I am to see masks go, I don’t think it is the best idea following a break,” she said. “With everyone traveling, I just feel like we shouldn’t be getting rid of requirements just yet.”

Sophomore Juliette Zúñiga echoed the same concerns.

“Timing-wise, I’m not sure if it’s best,” she said. “I know that a lot of my friends are pretty worried about cases going up, but I think we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Zúñiga lives with her grandmother, so maintaining her health is a priority.

“I would rather wear masks all the time than increase the risk of her getting sick,” she said.

Additionally, Zúñiga worried that the administration’s decision to eliminate aspects of the mandate might provide students an excuse to disregard COVID-19 altogether. Apart from that, some worry that the school may not be able to fully manage another surge in cases.

With the case increase, the school’s COVID-19 reports showed increased specificity. Positive cases were divided by division, and the method of discovery (self-reported or school testing) was easily accessible.

At the same time, however, contact tracing emails, sent out to parents upon COVID-19 exposure, lacked specificity.

Elizabeth Monasa sends all four of her children to Country Day. Two attend the high school and two the middle school.

“Sometimes I would receive emails saying that my child had been exposed to COVID-19 and required testing,” she said.

In those instances, Monasa did not know which of the four to test, but she found the administration supportive.

“If I ever needed specifics, I would email back, and they would quickly reply with the grade,” she said.

At the end of the day, she is grateful for everything the school has done, noting that her “concern” is more of an inconvenience than anything else.

Regardless, it is one shared by many parents at the school.

Thomsen recognizes the occasional frustration but assures parents if they ever remain unsure, answers are only an email away.

Ultimately, despite the seemingly endless worries, many see the outdoor mask mandate termination as a step in the right direction.

Monasa, although unsure of how much of a difference the outdoor mask mandate would make, is glad to see case numbers decreasing and normalcy returning.

Similarly, junior Felix Wu anticipates a day where masks may also be optional inside.

“I am very happy that we no longer have to wear masks outside,” he said. “I just think that it is more comfortable without.”

Even sophomore Rachel Pirie, who intends to continue wearing her mask, understands the school’s decision to go mask-optional outdoors, saying she understands why people find it more comfortable to not wear them outside.

But, in the end, Zúñiga summed it up when she said, “we won’t ever progress if we don’t try to get things back to normal.”

— By Simone DeBerry

Originally published in the March 8 edition of the Octagon.

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