Just four days after suggesting it would be extending the mask mandate for San Francisco students beyond the state's recommended date, San Francisco Unified School District announced Friday that the masks will, in fact, be optional starting March 12 at middle and high schools.

Governor Gavin Newsom and the state health department announced Monday that California would be lifting the mask order for public schools starting March 12, a month after the state broadly lifted mask orders for the general public in most indoor spaces. But SF's embattled school district, which spent much of 2020 and early 2021 angering a good portion of district parents by delaying the return to in-person learning, announced later on Monday that it did not plan to align with the state, despite the recommendations of the city's own health department.

But now, perhaps just after some due diligence with its unions, the SFUSD reversed itself Friday and said that masks will be recommended but not required starting March 12 at all district middle schools and high schools. That will expand to all schools, including pre-kindergarten, transitional kindergarten, elementary, and K-8 schools, starting April 2.

"We are committed to following public health guidance, and our health officials have stated that masks in schools are no longer required but still recommended," said SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews in a statement. "We are starting with middle and high schools, where there are higher vaccination rates, in order to give more time for families of younger students to get their children vaccinated."

It remains the case that children under the age of five don't yet have an FDA-approved vaccine option, and they likely won't before this school year is done. But in San Francisco, more than 90% of city residents age 5 and older have had at least one dose of a vaccine, and 87% are now fully vaccinated. Additionally, 68% of residents ages 12 and older have received a third vaccine dose — and according to city health orders, kids 12 and up aren't allowed into mega-events like Chase Center basketball games unless they have proof of a booster.

The agreement to allow masks to become optional was made after the district met with the unions for its teachers and staff, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), United Administrators of San Francisco, SEIU 1021, and IFPTE 21. According to a memo of understanding between the district and the unions, masks become optional according to the above timeline, but schools must post signage saying that masks remain "strongly recommended" on school grounds.

Also, SFUSD announced Friday that students who have had a recent COVID exposure will be allowed to remain in school under the "group tracing method" of COVID-19 contact tracing — unless they test positive or they show worsening symptoms. And the district said it would continue to provide an "adequate supply of COVID-19 tests at school and worksites for all staff and students."

Michael Essien, president of the United Administrators of San Francisco, said in a statement that the transitional period over the next several weeks "allows ample time for our staff, students, and families to adjust to the new procedures regarding group tracing and masking."

And UESF President Cassondra Curiel said, "Since the beginning, UESF, along with the other unions of SFUSD, have prioritized and advocated for safety standards that meet the needs of our community. Together we organized and won quality masks, regular testing, ventilation, and COVID sick days. And with all of those multilayers of mitigation outlined in our ongoing health and safety agreement still in place, we support an ease in the mask mandate that still provides time for our youngest students to get vaccinated."

Previously: SF Unified Says the Masks Stay On

Photo: Kelly Sikkema