After announcing guidance for California public schools on Monday that had been leaked out on Friday, and facing backlash from critics of Governor Newsom's pandemic response in general, the state's public health department is backtracking a bit.

On Tuesday, likely under pressure from Newsom as he anticipates September's recall election and attack ads to come, state health officials changed course and said that public schools do not have to send students home if they refuse to wear a mask if it is not district policy to do so. As the Associated Press reports, the revised guidance leaves more control in the hands of local districts where mask mandates may not end up being so strict. And officials say that if a district does keep strict masking rules and a school does send a student home for refusing to wear one, that student must be permitted to complete their schoolwork from home.

Newsom spokesperson Alex Stack said in a statement, "The original wording was made in error. The guidance was updated to allow for schools to continue enforcing the mask mandate as they have done for the past year while also being able to provide independent study options for students who refuse to wear a mask."

And Troy Flint, a spokesperson for the California School Boards Association, tells the AP that this revision makes "a huge difference in terms of how districts would operate and how the public is going to receive this guidance."

Politics have to have come into play with the change, and even though Newsom has continued to poll well and a recall is unlikely, he's clearly not eager to give his enemies more fodder. Still, the Delta variant and increasing new case counts could pose a challenge in the coming eight weeks before the recall election happens.

Teachers unions have posed one of the biggest sets of obstacles to getting schools reopened, and the state had essentially struck a deal with them to get all students back to in-person learning by saying that masks would continue to be mandatory for all students and staff.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, the UCSF epidemiologist who's become a voice of pragmatism and calm in the late pandemic, tells the AP that the guidance for schools is reasonable given that the vaccination- and infection-rate picture across the state continues to vary. But, she says, districts should consider relaxing mask mandates when infections are low, vaccinations are high, and hospitalizations fall below five per 100,000 residents.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema