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Hours after barring maskless students from campuses, California reverses ban

The state Department of Public Health's guidance initially stated that if students refused to wear masks, schools should offer "alternative educational opportunities."
Image: California schools mask mandate
Kindergarteners in the classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles, on April 13.Jae C. Hong / AP file

California health officials on Monday issued a statewide policy for the upcoming academic year that would have barred students from school campuses if they refused to wear masks, only to backtrack on the ban hours later.

The California Department of Public Health published its guidance for K-12 schools Monday afternoon, mandating that students wear face coverings indoors and stating that "schools must exclude students from campus" if they did not comply, directing them to offer such students "alternative educational opportunities."

But by Monday evening, the department said in a tweet that it would clarify its masking enforcement guidance, "recognizing local schools’ experience in keeping students and educators safe while ensuring schools fully reopen for in-person instruction."

The Los Angeles Times reported that the department planned to drop the wording about excluding students.

California public health officials did not immediately confirm that to NBC News but said they would leave it up to local school officials on how to enforce mask mandates, as was the case last year. They added that that does not mean schools have discretion on whether to require masks.

Both students and adults alike are expected to wear masks inside California schools this school year. Last week, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for schools that permit fully vaccinated students to go maskless, California health officials said they were still keeping their mask mandates in place, regardless of vaccination status.

That puts California among the strictest states when it comes to schools and mask-wearing. According to Burbio, a digital platform that tracks mask mandates, fewer than a dozen states still have laws that require masks in schools at the state level; others, such as Arizona, have gone so far as to ban school mask mandates.

The whiplash with the guidance in California comes as the contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States. In Los Angeles County, public health officials have urged everyone to wear masks indoors, even if they have been vaccinated, in light of the highly infectious strain — going a step above CDC guidance.

Despite how transmissible the new variant of the coronavirus is, studies indicate fully vaccinated people have strong protection against severe illness from it.

At the moment, only children ages 12 and up are eligible for the Covid-19 vaccines.