Students wearing facial coverings attend class on first day back in person, at Concord High School in Concord, Calif., on Aug. 12, 2021. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

While California K-12 students will still be required to wear masks once the state’s indoor mask mandate ends this week, one of the state’s top health officials said Monday that a decision on in-school mask requirements could be made by the end of the month.

State health officials plan to monitor COVID-19 metrics among school students in the next two weeks, with the expectation of formally announcing on Feb. 28 a date when students will no longer be required by the state to wear a mask at school.

State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a media briefing Monday that individual counties and school districts will still be allowed to enforce their own mask requirements if they see fit.

Ghaly also said that if the state elects to lift its mask requirement for schools, it will be sometime in March at the earliest to allow schools and parents to prepare.

“It’s not a decision that’s happening the next day or the next couple of days, but certainly something that we will be sharing clearly and setting a timetable if we see the information that we hope and, frankly, expect to see,” Ghaly said.

Ghaly acknowledged the frustration some parents feel that the state has never lifted school masking requirements even as the state’s youngest students have become eligible for vaccination, but argued that the state has always taken a measured approach to lifting restrictions.

“Parents should not hear that we aren’t making a move,” he said. “We’re taking a little bit more time to consider the information, work with our partners across the state to make sure, when the move is made, that we are doing it successfully and with communities empowered to continue to be safe.”

Ghaly also noted that the state’s in-school safety measures like required masking for students and required vaccination for educators has led to far fewer school closures due to the virus.

California has 12 percent of the entire country’s K-12 public school students – the most of any state – but accounts for just 1 percent of school closures, he said.

As of Monday, the state’s COVID metrics have dropped precipitously from the records highs of the most recent surge in cases driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

The state’s seven-day average test positivity rate has fallen from 22.9 percent to 6.2 percent while hospital admissions are down from 13,776 to 8,189.

Even with falling case data, however, Ghaly argued that state residents should be prepared for future surges and for the virus to remain unpredictable for the foreseeable future.

“I think for California and our future, it is about being ready and being prepared, learning from our experiences today and making sure Californians can feel confident in the tools that we’re putting together,” he said.