BUSD will reinstate indoor mask mandate Monday amid new surge

Students and staff will once again be required to wear masks indoors at Berkeley Unified schools beginning Monday in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19 and ensure more people can attend upcoming graduation ceremonies.

Superintendent Brent Stephens announced the new rule in an email to the community Friday morning.

The change comes amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by contagious omicron subvariants. In recent weeks, more students and staff began testing positive for the virus, and Lisa Hernandez, Berkeley’s health officer, told BUSD officials Wednesday that in-school transmission was “likely” occurring.

In an email Hernandez sent to Stephens on Wednesday, she “strongly” recommended the superintendent reinstate a mask mandate until the end of the school year “to protect students and staff from further exposure and transmission, to ensure the completion of the in person school year and associated ceremonies.”

The latest surge is hitting the Bay Area, including Berkeley, particularly hard. The region has the highest COVID-19 case rates in California. Reported cases in Berkeley are the highest they have been throughout the pandemic, aside from the omicron surge, and Alameda County’s wastewater tests show case rates are likely even higher.

Stephens’ announcement comes one week after Hernandez and 11 other Bay Area health officials advised residents to wear masks indoors again, though she stopped short of requiring them.

In BUSD, more than 250 students tested positive for COVID-19 in May, according to the district’s case dashboard. About 200 students tested positive in April and 52 in March.

More teachers and administrators have been absent since the surge began, according to Stephens. The district has been able to fill only half of these absences due to a substitute teacher shortage, and as a result, staff are working overtime to cover for absent colleagues.