The first day back to school for BUSD Oxford elementary school after over a year of lockdown resulting from the COVID 19 pandemic, March 29, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Students at Oxford elementary school gather on the schoolyard. Berkeley Unified will soon be allowed to take their masks off outside. Photo: Pete Rosos

Beginning Feb. 28, Berkeley schools will no longer require students to wear masks outside while on campuses, Superintendent Brent Stephens announced at a school board meeting Wednesday night.

The school board also approved a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff that will kick in this spring. The mandate does not include a booster shot requirement.

A change to the outdoor masking rules was not on the agenda for the school board meeting, and Stephens’ announcement came as a surprise. Earlier in the meeting, school board directors Ty Alper and Laura Babitt spoke in favor easing outdoor mask rules and multiple parents asked during public comment that the mandate be lifted.

“The science doesn’t support requiring masks outside,” Alper said. “No public health officer is requiring us to do this. As far as I know, no public health officer is recommending that we do it.”

Soon after, the superintendent announced that the mandate would be lifted at the end of the month.

The decision to allow students to go unmasked outdoors is based on declining case counts in the school district and feedback from school board directors supporting the change, Stephens said.

The announcement came the same day that the city of Berkeley — and much of the Bay Area and California — lifted indoor mask mandates for public places like pharmacies and grocery stories. Many Berkeleyans have been reluctant to take their masks off indoors right away.

California Department of Public Health never required that students wear masks outdoors, but the Berkeley Unified School District chose to require masks at all times on campuses so that more students would qualify for modified quarantine.” It was always the case that Berkeley voluntarily adopted an outdoor mask requirement,” Stephens said at the school board meeting. Previously, California’s guidelines for schools allowed unvaccinated students to remain at school after an exposure only if both students were wearing masks. Now, those guidelines have changed, and so will the district’s policy.

Several other school districts also announced plans to lift the requirement this week, including San Diego Unified and Burlingame Unified.

Students and staff are still required to wear masks indoors at school.

“To members of the community who are eager to see additional change, please know that there has been no change in the status of indoor masks requirements by [California Department of Public Health],” Stephens said at the school board meeting.

BUSD expects California’s guidelines for indoor masking at schools could change Feb. 28 and take effect later in March, Stephens said. If the district were to change its own policies on indoor masking, Stephens said it would do so after taking into account “overall community sentiment” and discussions with the teachers union.

Vaccine mandate for teachers and staff

The vaccine mandate for teachers and staff will take effect April 29, but no staff members will be fired or disciplined until the end of the school year.

The policy could mean that BUSD will have to replace about 150 staff members before the start of next school year, unless those employees get both shots before the deadline. Currently, 92% of teachers and staff are fully vaccinated, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

“Failure to comply with this policy by April 29, 2022 shall result in discipline, up to and including dismissal, or in the case of
applicants, the rejection of their job application,” the policy reads.

California is expected to pass a vaccine mandate for school employees before the start of the following school year. This policy is intended to get ahead of the state’s and give Berkeley Unified a leg up in the hiring process, allowing administrators to start finding replacements for staff sooner than other districts amid a state-wide school staff shortage.

The school board discussed the mandate at a Feb. 1 meeting. All of the school board directors supported the vaccine mandate, though school board director Julie Sinai urged the board to consider a booster mandate as well.

Berkeley has a mandate for city employees. Elsewhere, vaccine mandates issued by school districts have been met with legal challenges: Piedmont Unified and Los Angeles Unified are facing lawsuits for their student vaccine mandates.

At the school board meeting Wednesday, the employee vaccine mandate passed without discussion.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...