Breathe: students across the state will soon attend school without a mask. Photo by Matt Hall.

The State of California will no longer require schoolkids to wear masks as part of new indoor mask policies Governor Gavin Newsom announced Monday, in a joint press release with his fellow West Coast Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington.

And, while the LA County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) said it would “shift to strongly recommending indoor masking requirements” at schools and child care centers, the county department would also no longer be requiring indoor masking as of March 12.

As of Monday afternoon following the announcement, it was not immediately clear whether Santa Monica students would still be required to wear masks indoors by the time state rules lifted.

“We continue ongoing conversations about off-ramping strategies with our union leadership, along with school board leadership, with regard to next steps in regard to relaxing indoor masking guidelines,” an emailed statement from SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati said on Monday. Drati added that more information would be shared in coming days.

“With declining case rates and hospitalizations across the West, California, Oregon and Washington are moving together to update their masking guidance,” the governors said in their Monday announcement. There are more than 7.5 million school-age children across the three states.

The new guidance will make face coverings a recommendation rather than a requirement at most indoor places in California starting Tuesday, March 1, and at schools on March 12, regardless of vaccination status.

The governors’ announcement came shortly before the LACDPH released its own statement saying that it would align with State rules.

“LA County Public Health will align school masking measures with the state and shift to strongly recommending indoor masking requirements at childcare sites and K-12 schools beginning March 12,” the LADPH news release stated. “School districts may continue to require masking at schools and during school activities and are encouraged to consult with teachers, staff, parents and students as they consider the appropriate safety protections for their school community, recognizing that many individuals may want to continue additional protections.”

Drati’s message on Monday added that there would be a health symposium scheduled on March 7 that would include an update on guidelines and more information for parents. Panelists at the symposium include Dr. Jamie Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has been studying COVID-19 aerosol and surface stability; Dr. Nava Yeganeh, a pediatric infectious disease physician and medical director for vaccine preventable disease control at LACDPH as well as a UCLA instructor; and Dr. Will Nicholas, the director of LACDPH center for health impact evaluation.

Federal mask requirements will still apply in high-risk indoor settings such as public transportation, airports and taxis. Rules for other high-risk indoor settings could also vary by state.

The milestone, two years in the making, comes as much of the country relaxes public health orders, including school mask mandates, in an effort to restore normalcy and boost economic recovery as Americans learn to live with the virus.

Earlier this month, California became the first state to formally shift to an endemic approach to the coronavirus with Newsom’s announcement of a plan that emphasizes prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns.

Newsom has come under growing pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the school mandate, which has increasingly become a polarizing issue among parents in California.

While many parents still support wearing masks in schools, others have questioned why it’s necessary when they are no longer required to do so in supermarkets and elsewhere. On Feb. 15, California ended an indoor mask requirement for vaccinated people, but at that time left the rule in place for the unvaccinated and for schoolchildren.

Starting Tuesday in California, masks will no longer be required but “strongly recommended” for unvaccinated individuals in most indoor settings. The same shift will apply to K-12 schools and child care facilities starting March 12, the statement said.

The powerful California Teachers Association said it expected a mixed reaction to the announcement at schools across the country’s most populous state.

“Simply put, while some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid,” CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement. The union has more than 300,000 members. “Change is never easy, and today’s announcement is bound to disrupt and destabilize school communities. As we transition to the next phase of living with COVID-19, we must go forward with respect, understanding and care for each other.”

A handful of California school districts have already dropped mask mandates for students in recent weeks in open defiance of the state mandate.

The West Coast announcements come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased the federal mask guidance Friday, essentially saying the majority of Americans don’t need to wear masks in many indoor public places, including schools.

The new CDC guidance bases recommendations for restrictions such as masking on a new set of measures, with less focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. Under the new system, the CDC said that more than 70 percent of Americans live in places where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals and therefore can stop wearing masks in most indoor places.

The CDC had endorsed universal masking in schools regardless of virus levels in the community since July, but it now recommends masks in schools only in counties at high risk.

Adam Beam and Jocelyn Gecker of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

emily@smdp.com