The first day back to school for BUSD Ruth Acty Elementary school after over a year of lockdown resulting from the COVID 19 pandemic, March 29, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
The first day back to school for BUSD Ruth Acty Elementary school last year, March 29, 2021. File photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley Unified will drop its indoor mask mandate March 14. The change comes a week after California Public Health announced new guidelines that say masks should be strongly recommended but not required in schools.

Last week, BUSD said it would wait to confer with Berkeley’s health department and its labor unions before making a decision on indoor masking. Then, public health officers from Berkeley and Alameda County announced Thursday that they will allow child care settings and K-12 schools to choose whether to require masks starting March 12.

Lisa Hernandez, the city’s health officer, said in a statement that “changing the order to a strong recommendation” would allow “more flexibility” for schools and child care providers. The reason was declining COVID-19 cases and rates of severe illness in the community, the city said.

Now, BUSD will follow state guidelines and allow students to remove their masks indoors.

“While BUSD will strongly recommend indoor masking at all schools and district facilities through the end of the 2021-22 school year, beginning March 14, 2022, indoor masking will no longer be required for all district students and staff,” reads a policy update from Superintendent Brent Stephens included in the March 9 school board meeting materials.

Some Berkeley parents eagerly awaited the chance for students to take off their masks.

“Restoring normalcy in schools will demonstrate that BUSD is guided by sound science and will help condition the school community for a future of COVID endemicity when masks will come on and off depending on surges — but will never be permanent condition of attending school,” Berkeley parent David Freeling wrote in the Facebook group for Open Schools Berkeley, an advocacy group that lobbied the district to reopen schools last year.

But other parents say they want to see masks stay on in schools, even if means going against the statewide guidelines.

“I would have been fine with the acclaim and the shame of Berkeley Unified sticking to its mask mandate and sticking out like a sore thumb,” said Ludovic Blain, the parent of a sixth-grader at Longfellow Middle School. “Berkeley does many things that make us weird to folks outside of Berkeley.”

Blain thinks that making masks “strongly recommended” will effectively mean that the vast majority of students will stop wearing masks. “We didn’t do [strongly recommended] with seat belts. We don’t do that with drunk driving,” he said.

To explain his concern, Blain pointed to research published last week that showed the smaller dose of the vaccine, which was distributed for children under 12, was proven to be far less effective at preventing infection and hospitalization. Even though hospitalization rates remain very low for children, Blain says he doesn’t want to abandon a relatively easy intervention and risk hospitalization or long COVID for his son.

Many nearby school districts like San Francisco Unified have followed state guidelines in dropping their mask mandates, while others, like Oakland Unified, have yet to make a decision.

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,...