Berkeley health officials give schools the OK to lift mask mandates

Berkeley health officials will follow the state’s lead later this month in letting schools drop face covering requirements for students and staff. As of Thursday, however, the Berkeley Unified School District had not said whether it will act on the change or keep its mask mandate in place.

Public health officers from Berkeley and Alameda County announced Thursday afternoon that they will allow childcare settings and K-12 schools to choose whether to require masks starting March 12. The change aligns local mask rules with a plan Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday to end state-level face covering requirements on that date.

A Berkeley Unified spokeswoman did not immediately respond Thursday to a Berkeleyside inquiry asking whether the district plans to change its face covering rules as a result of the new guidance.

In a statement Monday, Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote that the district would consult with school leadership and employee unions once it had received updated guidance from local health officials before deciding whether to change the rules.

Students and staff currently must mask up while inside all BUSD buildings. A district requirement to wear face coverings outdoors ended Monday.

San Francisco Unified announced Monday that it will keep its face covering requirement in place despite the end of the state mandate.

The move to drop mask requirements for schools comes as government officials dial back pandemic restrictions in response to a steep decline in case rates following the winter’s omicron surge. Still, Berkeley leaders said Thursday that they continue to advise people to wear masks indoors — and warned that more stringent rules could return if pandemic conditions change again.

“At this time, we feel comfortable changing the order to a strong recommendation, which allows for more flexibility in how people and facilities implement safety measures in schools and childcare,” Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said in Thursday’s statement. “New surges that threaten public health and the lives of vulnerable residents may call for quick and assertive action — including new requirements to mask.”

Staff writer Ally Markovich contributed reporting.