LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Thousands of students returned to school today without the COVID-19-inspired requirement of wearing a mask indoors, but the Los Angeles Unified School District is still mandating them under terms of the labor contract with its teachers' union.
The state and Los Angeles County both lifted the indoor mask mandate effective Saturday, so Monday marked the first full school day without the rule. Masks are still ``strongly recommended,'' but not mandated. Individual school districts, however, are permitted to maintain the mandate if they see fit.
LAUSD is still mandating the masks, although Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says he supports eliminating the requirement.
``I have and will continue to follow the science,'' Carvalho wrote on Twitter Monday morning. ``I lifted outdoor masking upon arriving and am seeking same for indoor settings. Truth is that previous (labor) contract language prevents unilateral action.''
The district's contract with United Teachers Los Angeles includes requirements for COVID safety measures in the classroom, including masks. The contract is in effect through the end of the semester.
Carvalho issued a statement over the weekend saying the district is ``working with labor partners ... to reach agreements that change indoor masking in schools from required to strongly recommended.''
UTLA issued a statement last month supporting masks in schools.
``LAUSD schools have been the safest and most well equipped in the country because educators and families united to demand critical health and safety protocols,'' according to the union. ``These protocols, like indoor masking, have protected tens of thousands of educators and more than half a million students, along with their families. It is premature to discuss removing these health and safety measures while there are still many unvaccinated youth in our early education programs and schools.''
County health officials continue to urge parents to get eligible children vaccinated against the coronavirus. This month, 921 school vaccination sites are scheduled, with 89% of them located in hard-hit community areas, including South Los Angeles (including Compton and Inglewood), Southeast Los Angeles County (including Bell, Cudahy, Hawaiian Gardens, South Gate,\ Huntington Park, Lakewood), the San Fernando Valley (Reseda, North Hills, Panorama City, Canoga Park, Pacoima, and Sylmar) and areas in the Antelope Valley.
According to the county Department of Public Health, local schools continue to see a decline in the number of positive tests and test positivity for their students and staff. Between Feb. 28 and March 4, over 470,000 tests were administered at K-12 schools across the county with 1,381 positive tests, resulting in a test positivity rate of 0.3%.
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals continues to fall, dipping below the 500 mark to reach 491, according to state figures. That's down from 537 on Sunday. The number of those patients in intensive care was 98, down from 107 on Sunday.
The hospitalization number has been declining steadily since reaching more than 4,800 in mid-January, at the height of the Omicron-fueled winter surge.
``The declines reflect decreases in community transmission and have resulted in reduced stress across our health care system allowing health care providers to return to providing a full range of essential prevention and treatment services,'' county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrers said in a statement. ``Keeping transmission as low as possible is key to protecting both our health care system and vulnerable residents. This will require a willingness to continue sensible protections that dampen spread of the virus.
``While masking indoors is no longer required, given continued substantial transmission, wearing masks when in close contact with others in public spaces, remains a very important layer of protection, as is being fully vaccinated and boosted.''
The county reported 1,427 new COVID infections and 40 new deaths over the past two days, bringing its cumulative totals to 2,813,689 cases and 31,315 fatalities.
The rolling seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 0.6% as of Monday, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
On Thursday, L.A. County health officials said they were working to increase the number of providers who can offer residents access to anti-COVID therapeutics, while also striving to raise awareness about their availability.
According to the Department of Public Health, the oral medications are Paxlovid and Molnupiravir are prescription drugs that must be taken within five days of COVID symptoms developing. Paxlovid is available for anyone age 12 and older who weighs more than 88 pounds. Molnupiravir is available for anyone 18 and over.
A third medication, Evulsheld, is given through an injection and is available for people 12 and over who have not been exposed to the virus and are unable to get a COVID vaccine for medical reasons.