Monterey Peninsula schools carry over relaxed spring COVID-19 protocols – Monterey Herald

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Masks will not be required in Monterey County schools this year, as schools carry over relaxed spring COVID-19 protocols and prepare for students’ return this week.

“We were able to demonstrate last year that by following the mitigation strategies that are outlined, we can keep schools open and keep kids and staff safe,” explained Monterey Peninsula Unified School District  Superintendent, PK Diffenbaugh. “I have no doubt that we can continue, but we need to stay vigilant and continue the practices that we know to be effective.”

Carmel Unified School District Superintendent Ted Knight agreed that because the district relaxed masking requirements earlier this spring, the district and community members feel more comfortable about starting the school year without mask mandates.

“It’s no different than the end of last year, so you know it settled down,” he said. “We’re continuing to feel comfortable being open for full in-person learning. I think our kids are excited to start the year off a little more normal.”

Monterey County’s schools have all emphasized that they will continue to follow the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines when it comes to COVID-19 mitigations. The guidance – effective July 1, 2022 – strongly recommends that all eligible individuals get vaccinated and remain up-to-date to protect themselves and reduce transmission of the virus.

The department’s guidelines also recommend that schools improve air quality, teach and reinforce proper handwashing, use antigen tests as the primary option for detecting COVID-19 in schools and provide masks for students, staff and visitors.

The main focus of the guidelines continues to emphasize the importance of implementing effective COVID-19 protocols to keep schools open and reduce disruptions to in-person learning.

“Broad disruptions to in-person learning, such as temporary school or classroom closures, due to COVID-19 should remain a last resort and considered only after all available resources have been exhausted and only after conferring with local health officials,” the guidelines state.

In a town hall last week for Monterey Peninsula Unified parents and community members, Diffenbaugh addressed the concern that rising cases and new variants could result in school closures.

“I can confidently say that the answer to that is no,” he said. “From everything we’ve heard from the state, from the local county health department, they’ve been very clear that keeping schools open is a priority … we know – because we did it last year – that we can keep our schools safe.”

Students and staff of Monterey County schools exposed to the virus will be allowed to continue to take part in all aspects of school – including athletics and extracurricular activities – regardless of vaccination status, as long as they remain asymptomatic.

Previously, exposed staff members who were unvaccinated or not boosted were required to be quarantined for at least five days following an exposure to the virus. Diffenbaugh pointed out that this rule put a real strain on the school district because of teacher and substitute shortages.

Individuals who have COVID-19 symptoms will be encouraged to wear a mask, get tested immediately and asked to not return to campus until symptoms are mild and improving.

“Really, this year since it’s more about symptoms, we just have a renewed focus on both communicating and then ensuring that kids that have symptoms are not in school,” said Knight. “It’s really just a renewed focus on symptoms and making sure that students stay home when they’re sick and that we have the systems in place to help keep them physically safe and healthy and caught up when they get back.”

Schools in the county have also included various ventilation and air quality improvements to the list of their mitigation strategies. Monterey Peninsula Unified equipped each classroom with new HVAC filters and systems to increase airflow, while Pacific Grove Unified School District’s COVID Safety Plan mentions that doors and windows will be opened during school hours and when rooms are occupied to bring in the maximum amount of outdoor air.

Monterey Peninsula Unified also used federal COVID-19 funding to increase its number of health professionals so that each school within the district will have a health professional on campus. The district outlined its plan to increase mental health services at all sites to support students in need as they continue to experience mental health crises from the pandemic.

While everyone 6 months of age and older is now eligible to get a vaccine and everyone 5 years of age and older are eligible for a booster, the California Department of Public Health has said that it will not initiate the regulatory process for a vaccine requirement for the 2022-2023 school year.

While they are not required, Monterey County schools continue to emphasize that masks and vaccines are strongly recommended for students, faculty and staff.

Looking ahead to the 2022-2023 school year, district superintendents say they remain committed to keeping schools safe and preventing any further disruptions to in-person learning.

“I think we need to continue to manage through the pandemic. We can wish that it was gone but the reality is, COVID is still here and keeping our schools safe, keeping our staff and students healthy is still a huge priority,” said Diffenbaugh. “I think our goal is to continue to support families, not just at the school setting but in the community.”

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