“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Dr. Lisa Santora, the county’s deputy public health officer, said in a webinar Thursday for Marin school administrators. “But we could have another new omicron variant come out, so we have to be prepared to pivot.”
Santora and Dr. Matt Willis, the county’s public health officer, will give more specific school guidance at a public health webinar at 4 p.m. Aug. 15. More information is available at marinschools.org. Parents who want to submit questions in advance may email county staff at RapidResponse@MarinSchools.org.
Most Marin schools will start back the week of Aug. 15.
Willis and Santora said they should have updated school guidance then from the California Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For now, Santora said, “It’s back to basics — frequent hand-washing, testing at home before coming back to school, wearing a mask indoors and keeping up to date on vaccinations.”
Also on the horizon is a new vaccine booster shot that is effective against the omicron variant BA.5, Willis said. BA.5 is the current dominant strain of the virus in Marin.
Willis said the new booster is expected by mid- to late September. It will be prioritized first for the most vulnerable populations, such as people over 60 or those who are immune compromised.
Second booster shots from the original vaccine series are also available, and can be useful in adding another layer of immunity, Willis said.
“The good news is that we’re not seeing a surge related to this variant,” he said. “Our high vaccination rate in Marin has been our greatest asset since the vaccines became available in December 2020.”
Even though the BA.5 variant is highly contagious, and is infecting even those who are fully vaccinated, the severity of illness, number of hospitalizations or deaths from infection are all relatively low, Willis said.
Santora said the county does not expect to impose mask mandates, but wearing N95 masks will still be strongly recommended at school sites indoors.
Families might also want to keep a supply of rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits at home and have their students test negative the day before returning to school — or stay home if the test is positive and isolate.
A student who stays home can retest after five days. If there is a negative test, and any symptoms have resolved, the student may return to school, but should wear a mask for 10 days, Santora said.
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, talk of a statewide vaccine mandate for students has been put on hold along with requirements for the shots that many school districts such as Oakland and West Contra Costa were planning last year.
“It’s kind of returning to the old adage of when you’re sick, stay home and when you’re better, come back,” said Megan Bacigalupi of Oakland, who heads the CA Parent Power advocacy group that pushed for schools to reopen and allow families choices on COVID protection. “We need to give kids the normalcy in 2019 that they had back.”
Mask requirements are still a tool being kept in the toolbox. While state health officials announced in June that masks would remain optional for the 2022–2023 school year, that doesn’t mean local health and school officials can’t require them if they believe it’s appropriate.
San Diego Unified adopted a policy in May in which masks would be required indoors at school when the county’s positive case rate and hospitalizations put it in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s high community risk level, as the health agency recommends. The county hit that level last month and remains there. The district required masks for summer school last month and hasn’t yet decided whether they will be required when classes resume Aug. 29.
California was the first state to impose a stay-home lockdown order as the pandemic took hold in March 2020 and the slowest to reopen classrooms to in-person instruction. In March, the state was among the last to drop statewide face mask requirements for schools — which most states didn’t impose in the first place.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has credited the state’s policies with saving lives from COVID. But it’s widely acknowledged that prolonged school closures hampered kids’ education and that they have suffered mentally and emotionally from isolation and stress.
The Oakland Unified School District clung to its mask mandate a month longer than the state required, and Alameda County reimposed its indoor mask requirement for three weeks in June as new variants of the virus drove cases higher. Although the CDC says COVID levels remain high throughout the Bay Area, county health and school district officials haven’t called for new indoor mask mandates.
In an informational meeting for Oakland Unified parents, Sailaja Suresh, senior director of strategic initiatives at the district, said the threat posed by the virus at a time when vaccines and treatments are widely available and many already have recovered from COVID-19 is different, and many have lost patience with mandates.
“Feelings about this are deeply divided. There’s in many senses fewer things that we can force folks to do,” Suresh said. “We’re not starting the year where masks are mandated. We’re not starting the year where testing is required following an exposure. … We’re just going to continue to strongly recommend and provide access to those mitigation measures.”
Alameda County Public Health clinical guidance lead Dr. Joanna Locke said at the meeting that was a sound approach.
“There are people that really would feel more comfortable with a mandate and people that don’t ever want a mandate in place again,” Locke said. “At this point in the pandemic, we really need to be very judicious about our use of emergency orders, and I think we’re trying to switch people’s thinking from an idea that if it’s not mandated it’s not important.”
Bay Area News Group contributed to this report.