As students and teachers return to classrooms this week after winter break, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) officials are urging the use of masks in indoor spaces for at least 10 days to prevent a spike of COVID-19 cases as well the spread of other respiratory illnesses including the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
In a message sent out to members of the SMMUSD community on Jan 2, Interim Superintendent Mark Kelly said the 10 day masking recommendation is in line with Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) guidelines, citing a LACDPH message.
“To prevent a post-holiday COVID-19 surge, residents are asked to layer protections as they return to work and school,” it stated. “Masking indoors remains an easy and sensible precaution to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmissions, limit disruptions related to workplace or school outbreaks, and limit additional stress on health care providers and hospitals.”
LACDPH Director Barbara Ferrer said the department issued the masking guidance with the hope of preventing the type of increase in illness that has been seen following previous holidays.
“The holiday season, by its very nature, brings increased risk of exposure,” she said. “Including at celebrations and events, during travel or while out in more crowded public spaces.”
In addition to COVID-19, she noted the presence of RSV, which has been especially prevalent among children in Southern California in recent months, along with what she called a “quick, severe start” to the flu season.
Since early October, 43 LA County residents have been reported to have died from flu-related illness, but Ferrer said that, accounting for lack of testing and reporting, Center for Disease Control modeling suggests the number is likely closer to 360.
While flu cases have been on the decline in recent weeks according to wastewater data, Ferrer cautioned that the flu season is not yet over and encouraged residents to get the flu vaccine if they have not yet.
She also urged individuals to receive the bivalent COVID-19 booster shot to help protect against variants of the virus. According to the most recent LACDPH data, SMMUSD has a Covid vaccination rate of 94.5% for 12-18 year olds and 64.4% for 5-11 year olds.
Even with these high rates, SMMUSD officials continue to stress the role of additional precautions such as masking and frequent testing in combating the spread of the disease. In his recent message, Kelly asked all students to take a free district-provided COVID-19 test the evening or morning before returning to campuses.
“We are looking forward to our return to school and starting off 2023 with enthusiasm for student academic success, along with continued health and wellness of our staff and students,” he wrote.
SMMUSD elementary schools resumed on Jan. 3 and secondary school students returned beginning on Jan. 4.