News   /   July 20, 2021   /   

California State Health Officials Mandate Universal Masking Indoors in K-12 School Settings for the 2021-2022 School Year

On July 12, 2021, two days after the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) published its updated recommendations for K-12 schools, the California Department of Public Health (“CDPH”) issued updated COVID-19 Health Guidance for K-12 Schools in California for the 2021-2022 school year. The updated CDPH guidance is intended to provide K-12 schools in California with the safest and most effective path to ensuring that students can return to full-time, in-person instruction as much as possible.

The CDPH guidance, which takes effect immediately, emphasizes the importance of all eligible individuals getting vaccinated against COVID-19, but also recognizes that other safety mitigation measures remain necessary to successfully return to traditional, in-person learning for the 2021-2021 school year. While the updated CDPH guidance recommends that schools take a layered approach to COVID-19 safety mitigation measures, the guidance highlights masks as continuing to be one of the most effective and simplest ways of preventing the transmission of COVID-19 in school settings and ensuring that students receive as much in-person instructional time as possible without the need for social distancing.

The CDPH’s updated guidance for K-12 Schools is summarized below.


  • Indoors:
    • All K-12 students regardless of their vaccination status must wear a mask when indoors.
    • All teachers, staff, and other adults in K-12 school settings, regardless of their vaccination status, are required to wear masks indoors when sharing space with students.
      • Schools are required to provide face coverings to students who inadvertently fail to bring a face covering to school to prevent unnecessary exclusions.
      • Students and staff exempted from wearing masks for medical reasons must wear a non-restrictive alternative, e.g., a face shield with a drape.
      • If face coverings cannot be used for pedagogical or developmental reasons, such as communicating or assisting young children or those with special needs, a face shield with a drape (per CDPH guidelines) can be used instead, but those wearing a face shield must maintain physical distancing from others.
    • Outdoors:
      • Masks are optional for students, as well as for teachers and staff.

After initially requiring that schools bar students without masks from campuses, CDPH quickly revised its guidance to give local school officials the responsibility for enforcing the mask mandate. Each school district is thus tasked with developing and implementing a protocol for enforcing the indoor mask requirements. The CDPH guidance also urges schools to offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.

School districts should keep in mind that, where masking may be optional under the CDPH guidance, masks still may be required for employees under the Cal/OSHA COVID-19 Temporary Emergency Standards, depending on vaccination status and other factors. Similarly, school districts should continue to monitor local public health orders, which may impose stricter or different masking requirements.

Physical Distancing

Consistent with the updated CDC guidance for K-12 School settings, the CDPH has determined that in-person instruction can occur safely without physical distancing when other mitigation strategies, including universal masking, are in place. Under the updated CDPH guidance, physical distancing is not required.

Other Safety Measures

The updated CDPH guidance contemplates a layered approach to COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools and recommends that, in addition to the universal indoor mask mandate, schools implement other mitigation strategies, including:

  • Optimizing ventilation
  • Promoting and reinforcing good handwashing other hygiene practices
  • Providing ongoing access to COVID-19 testing and screening programs[1]
  • Daily cleaning and disinfection of facilities and surfaces
  • Advising staff and students to stay home when sick and to get tested when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and not return to in-person instruction until meeting the CDPH criteria to return to school
  • Maximizing physical distancing while eating, especially indoors, and arrange for outdoor eating whenever possible
  • Continued contact tracing, case reporting[2], and investigation in combination with adherence to the recommended quarantine and isolation guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff[3]
  • Limiting nonessential visitors, volunteers, and other external groups with unvaccinated individuals.

COVID-19 Safety Planning Transparency

To promote and encourage transparency in school communities, the CDPH guidance recommends local educational agencies (“LEAs”) develop and post a safety plan on their website and at schools, which outlines the safety measures in place for the 2021-2022 school year. The CDPH guidance also recommends that LEAs provide the safety plan to families before the start of the new school year.[4]

Recognizing that the dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic are continually evolving, the CDPH has stated that it will continue to evaluate conditions on an ongoing basis and make a determination by no later than November 1, 2021, regarding whether to update mask requirements in K-12 Schools or other recommendations.

As K-12 school districts across the state prepare to reopen their doors for in-person learning, school districts should work closely with teachers, staff, and other stakeholders to develop a plan for complying with the CDPH’s indoor masking requirements for K-12 schools and ensuring other recommended safety measures are implemented.  School districts should also continue to review and incorporate any local county public health orders and guidance that may be applicable to K-12 settings as part of their school re-opening plans and ongoing safety measures.

OMLO will continue to monitor these developments carefully. This article is for informational purposes only and only provides an overview of specific developments. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation. For actual legal advice and specifics pertaining to your governmental entity, please contact your OMLO attorney for assistance.

[1] CDPH has a robust State and federally funded school testing program. More information can be found at: CDPH K-12 School-based COVID-19 Testing Strategies.

[2] Under AB 86, school are required to report COVID-19 cases to the local health department.

[3] The updated CDPH guidance provides detailed guidance on recommended quarantine and isolation protocols for both students and staff based on vaccination status and whether the close contact or infected individual was wearing a mask. The CDPH’s isolation and quarantine recommendations for K-12 schools are outlined in 7-10 of the CDPH’s Safety Measures for K-12 Schools, which can be found here: CDPH K-12 Guidance 2021-2022 School Year.

[4] Local educational agency receiving relief funding under the federal American Rescue Plan Act are required to adopt a Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan, which must describe how the local educational agency will maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff.

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