The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health) announced the end of outdoor masking for large events, youth sports, and schools beginning on Feb. 16. While Public Health continues to recommend masks in crowded outdoor settings and schools can implement stricter rules if they choose, Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) has made outdoor masking optional in line with the revised Health Officer Order.
“BHUSD takes its responsibility ‘to provide a safe and orderly environment conducive to learning at the school’ for all students under Ed. Code 32238 as well as the LACDPH Health Orders very seriously,” Superintendent Dr. Michael Bregy told the Courier.
“BHUSD has been met with an overwhelming response of relief that we have such low transmission rates resulting in both LACDPH and BHUSD ending outdoor masking this week.”
While state public health officials have indicated that indoor mask mandates for schools could be lifted as soon as the end of the month based on current trends, Los Angeles schools face a longer timeline. Transmission rates in the county must first reach moderate levels, or about 730 daily cases, for two weeks. Los Angeles County recorded 2,133 cases on Feb. 15.
“We remain very encouraged by the steady decline that we are seeing across so many of our metrics,” Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer told the County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 15. Ferrer said that the county could reach moderate transmission by the middle of March at the current rate of decline.
Ferrer acknowledged frustration among some over the county’s more cautious approach, but noted that despite recent declines, transmission remains high.
“While it’s always important to consider personal risks and benefits, Public Health, as you know, is charged with assessing risks and benefits across populations,” Ferrer said.
“And because the cost of high transmissions are not just borne by individuals and are not distributed equally, it’s important to recognize that there have been severe disruptions associated with this surge, including staffing shortages, reduced economic security for many who have to quarantine or isolate without sick pay, and higher morbidity and mortality for those most vulnerable and those with more exposures.”
For two days prior to the post-surge period, BHUSD made outdoor masking optional under a creative interpretation of county rules. Under provisions in the Public Health’s Youth Sports Health Order, students who were “actively practicing, conditioning, or competing” in indoor or outdoor sports teams could opt out of wearing masks.
On Feb. 11, the board voted to classify each grade level as its own sports team, thereby making masks optional outdoors for all students.
“We’re taking the broad interpretation of the Youth Sports Health Order and allowing the kids, while they’re playing outside by categorizing their grade levels as teams, to be able to choose not to wear a mask if they so choose,” School Board President Mary Wells explained in an interview with the Courier.
At the Feb. 8 School Board meeting, parents and students voiced frustration with the district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy–a tone increasingly adopted by members of the board. Wells insisted that growing outside pressure did not factor into the board’s vote on the new policy.
A confluence of factors pushed the move, Wells said, including a heat advisory, a decline in COVID-19 case numbers, and previous discussions about minimizing masking outdoors.
“It’s a very loose interpretation,” Wells acknowledged.
Public Health was not inclined to provide that latitude. In fact, it approached BHUSD on Monday to clarify the policy.
As a Public Health spokesperson explained to the Courier, “The requirements and recommendations contained in Appendix S Protocol for Organized Youth Sports are intended to apply to just thatorganized youth sports teams or leagues, whether they operate as part of a school or elsewhere in the community.”
The spokesperson added, “Appendix S is not intended to apply to required PE classes that are part of the regular school curriculum, or informal play that might occur as part of student lunch or recess.”
Schools that have not adhered to health orders can receive citations and, in a few cases, cease and desist letters from County Counsel. In this case, the spokesperson noted that given the impending changes to outdoor masking, “[t]here seemed to be little reason to pursue formal action against the district for non-compliance.”