No outdoor mask mandate to come in high schools, says Supt. Austin

Tara Kapoor and Maia Johnsson

Seniors Celia Frahn, Tara Correa, and Poppy Harrison sit outside unmasked to eat lunch at a table during their prep period. High schoolers in the Palo Alto Unified School District are not required to wear masks outside, and many students are taking advantage of that rule. “If we are allowed to sit outside and not wear masks, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to wear them if we don’t need to,” Correa said. “We already need to wear them at school for 4.5 hours plus.” Photo: Maia Johnsson

Despite the rise in Delta variant cases of COVID-19 nationwide, outdoor masking will remain optional for Palo Alto Unified School District high school students, according to Superintendent Don Austin.

Austin told The Paly Voice last week that the vaccination rate percentage for district students is in the high 90s, although vaccination is not required, increasing the safety of the high school environment compared to elementary and middle school. Many elementary and middle schoolers are under 12 years old and too young to receive vaccination.

“We believe that 90-plus percent of our [high school] students are vaccinated,” Austin said. “Combine that with being outside in the air, and hopefully, … not necessarily in close contact for 15 minutes, cumulative time unmasked and unvaccinated. … For the most part, that [close contact unvaccinated and unmasked for long time periods] is not going to happen at a high school.” 

According to Austin, mandating masks outdoors is not practical for high schoolers, especially since athletics and other activities continue with participants in close contact without masks.

“It makes no sense to me to say that we have to mask high school students at all times as I’m standing on a sideline watching students tackle each other [in football games],” Austin said.

Senior Ashley Qiu said it may be difficult to mandate outdoor masks as well, especially during lunch and brunch. Qiu said she still tends to wear her mask outdoors whenever not eating.

“It’s very difficult to enforce something like that, especially when you have eating at lunch and brunch going on,” Qiu said. “Enforcing a mask mandate outdoors would be a little bit impossible to accomplish.”

With high vaccination rates and COVID-19 testing available at schools, Qiu said schools can do their best to optimize the safety of the outdoor environment without requiring masks.

“I think the best thing that a school can do is to provide enough space and opportunity for people to safely interact outdoors and limit the risk of COVID spreading,” Qiu said.

Since the beginning of the school year, PAUSD has logged three COVID-19 student cases across both high schools, which Austin said is low compared to other Bay Area districts. Paly has had only one COVID-19 case, which senior Braden Leung said makes him feel safer.

“There are a ton of factors that go into it, but if the general population is mostly vaccinated, I don’t get as scared about [COVID-19] walking around without a mask,” Leung said.

Senior James Miller said making people comfortable around others is the main goal, but in the end, masking around close friends and family may not be the most efficient way to minimize the spread.

“I think it’s common sense,” Miller said. “If you are worried about COVID-19, you can stay at home, and with so few people doing that, I think having no masks outside with friends is generally okay.”

Although cases are down in PAUSD, Austin said students should continue to behave responsibly during out-of-school interactions as well, including at outside meals and football games.

“I was at the football game, and I did notice, as I turned around, the masks disappeared in the stands,” Austin said.  “That did not look to me like a whole lot of masking and great decision-making. Schools cannot be responsible for every single interaction.”