Kindergarteners wear masks while listening to their teacher amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School in Lynwood on Jan. 12, 2022. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

(CALMATTERS) – Today is a day that millions of Californians have been anticipating with eagerness, dread and uncertainty: After three weeks of buildup, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is finally set to announce an update to the statewide school mask mandate.

But hanging over the announcement are a series of unspoken questions:

  • How much will it actually change school mask policies? Although the California School Boards Association recently begged Newsom to give schools “a specific K-12 exit strategy,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top health official, said earlier this month that local officials will still be able to implement stricter mask rules than the state’s. That suggests that California could retain its current patchwork of strategies, where some districts require face coverings at all times — even outdoors — and others refuse to enforce mask mandates, even at the risk of losing their insurance coverage or of teacher walkouts.
  • How much will it alter California’s current school climate, where mask rules are dividing parents, students and educators and fracturing campus life? Any move the state makes seems unlikely to bridge the sizable chasm: A recent UC Berkeley poll found that 61% of parents with school-age kids approve of school mask mandates, while 37% oppose them.
  • How will it align with new federal guidance? As CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang reports, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated masking recommendations based on a three-tiered system ranking each county’s infection levels and its hospital admissions, staffing levels and bed occupancy. More than half of California’s 58 counties — or about 49% of the population — fall into the highest tier, where masks are recommended indoors, including in schools. The CDC doesn’t recommend universal school masking for communities in the medium or low tiers.

Still, Newsom seems to see the writing on the wall as Democratic-led states — including California — adopt long-term plans for dealing with COVID. On Sunday, for example, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans to lift her state’s school mask mandate on Wednesday. 

  • Indeed, Newsom is under mounting pressure to end California’s pandemic state of emergency, which will celebrate its two-year anniversary on Friday. Last week, Democratic lawmakers agreed to consider on March 15 a Republican-led resolution to end the state of emergency.
  • On Friday, Newsom signed an executive order to terminate 12 open states of emergency — mainly related to heat waves and wildfires — and another to phase out provisions of 52 COVID executive orders, though the pandemic emergency declaration itself will remain in place, CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports.  
  • At the end of June, just 30 of the original 561 COVID emergency orders will remain, Newsom administration officials said. They include provisions allowing pharmacies to administer COVID tests and vaccines and permitting hospitals to bring in out-of-state health care workers. 

But critics argue that keeping the state of emergency also allows Newsom to keep what GOP Assemblymember Kevin Kiley of Rocklin called “extraordinary powers” — including the ability to change state laws and sign no-bid contracts.