For the first time in two years, Menlo Park students are seeing each others' faces on playgrounds around campus.
The Menlo Park City School District governing board voted to lift its outdoor mask mandate last week, effective Monday, Feb. 14, as the omicron surge levels off at local schools. It reported just nine cases last week, on par with its case counts from the fall semester, down from a peak of 88 in one week earlier this year.
The school board also dropped the district's requirement for students to wear medical-grade masks.
Superintendent Erik Burmeister implored the school community to "remain respectful and tolerant regardless of choices made for your family and the assumptions made about others," during the meeting. No one will be made to feel judged for their outdoor masking decisions, he said.
Cases began to spike when students returned from the winter holiday break in January.
Although California lifted its mask mandate in indoor public settings on Feb. 15 as cases continue to fall, it's unclear if this change will apply to schools. Updates on the school masking policy are expected in the coming weeks, according to a Feb. 7 press release from the California Department of Public Health.
The Woodside Elementary School District, which had seven cases last week, will drop the outdoor mask mandate on March 7, the week after students return from the February break, said Superintendent Steve Frank. Administrators plan to hand out COVID-19 rapid tests to students and staff before the break so they can test before returning to campus on Feb. 28. The district's student vaccination rate stands at 68%, a few percentage points higher than the rest of the county.
"As we approach that date, we must realize that everyone, students and staff, are transitioning away from their 'new norm' of wearing masks while outside the entire school year," Frank said in a message to families on Feb. 11. "Each individual will move at a different pace regarding the comfort of wearing or not wearing a mask outdoors, and we must try our best to be respectful to everyone."
The Portola Valley School District, which reported five cases last week, will drop its outdoor mask mandate Wednesday, Feb. 23, when students return from the Presidents Day weekend. The decision is based in part on omicron being a "substantially weaker variant" and the lower COVID-19 case counts.
It is also attributed to "very high vaccination rates" among staff and older students. As of Feb. 1, nearly 80% of staff are fully vaccinated (including booster shots) and as of Feb. 9, 57.1% of students between the age of 5 and 11 were vaccinated, and 94.8% of those over age 12 were vaccinated. The district is using layered strategies including self-screening before coming to school, spacing in classrooms, high quality air filtration, sanitizing and handwashing.
There were six cases in the Las Lomitas Elementary School District last week. There were seven the week before.
The Ravenswood City School District reported 10 cases last week, down from 31 the week prior.
District students are still masking outdoors, but the board of trustees will consider revising its policy, said Trustee Ana Maria Pulido in an email.
There were 35 cases in Sequoia Union High School District last week, compared to 121 the previous week. The district hasn't yet reported its Friday, Feb. 11, numbers yet though.
Masks have been optional when outdoors in the district. However, particularly in areas of substantial to high transmission levels, people who are not fully vaccinated are encouraged to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve contact with other people who are not fully vaccinated, according to a district FAQ.
This week, Portola Valley district administrators plan to work with the parent-teacher organization at each site to determine ways to invite families onto campus for outdoor events, according to a staff report.
Teachers and staff will work with site administration to consider field trips and classroom visitors.