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Push to reopen Orange County schools without masks is tied to charter school proponents

Teenagers walk near Heisler Park in Laguna Beach on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

A set of controversial guidelines recommending that Orange County public school students return to their campuses without basic coronavirus precautions has ties to an anti-union, pro-charter school group that is looking to open a new campus in August.

Members of the county’s Board of Education on Monday voted 4-1 to approve guidelines allowing for the reopening of schools without masks, social distancing or reduced class sizes as children, it claimed, “play a very minor role in COVID-19.”

For the record:

12:27 PM, Jul. 17, 2020An earlier version of this article stated that Ken Williams co-hosts the “Radio Free California” podcast. Will Swaim (not Williams) co-hosts the podcast.

The advisory document contradicts recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the California Department of Education and the Orange County Department of Education. Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced Friday that most California public school campuses will not reopen when the academic year begins and will instead shift toward full-time distance learning.

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Orange County’s document was commissioned by board President Ken Williams and Vice President Mari Barke, two members of the school board’s executive committee who are vocal proponents of public charter schools and school choice.

The pair assembled a panel of physicians, policy experts and a retired school superintendent in a June 24 community forum on school reopening with the intention of producing a document following the discussion that would guide the board’s decision making.

Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau and 3rd District Supervisor Don Wagner also participated in the forum, which lasted 3½ hours and drew more than 1,000 community members in person and online.

“We just reached out to different people we knew, we put together this forum and we invited the public,” Barke said. “The plan was that a paper would come out of that forum.”

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Orange County Board of Education members said Monday they believe a return to schools is the best course for children, in part, because science has shown youth are not at great risk of contracting COVID-19.

The resultant white paper was drafted by Will Swaim, former founding editor of the OC Weekly and president of the California Policy Center, a conservative think tank that frequently criticizes the power of employee unions and advocates for school choice. Swaim also moderated the June 24 forum. Swaim also co-hosts the “Radio Free California” podcast for the conservative outlet National Review.

The former journalist confessed his lack of health and medical expertise Wednesday, saying he leaned on his reporting background and network of contacts, along with notes taken at the forum, while compiling the draft. Williams later read and annotated the document.

“Mari asked me first to moderate a conversation, then came back and said, ‘I know you do a lot of policy work, would you put together a policy paper?’” Swaim said, describing a goal to find the best information he could on the virus as it relates to children. “I started by calling a few doctors.”

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Three teens have lunch at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Some have faulted the white paper’s findings and citations. A letter issued Tuesday by U.S. Reps. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach), Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier), Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and three other congressional Democrats requested a briefing with board members and Orange County Health Care Agency officials to clarify key points of the document.

Dan Cooper, a professor of pediatrics and UC Irvine’s associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational science who participated in schools Supt. Al Mijares’ task force, said Thursday the white paper was “very poorly annotated,” citing one study on the efficiency of masks protecting against influenza in 2010 and several newspaper articles.

“It’s very safe to say the level of scientific review was deficient,” Cooper said. “There are at least 100 articles in the last couple of months regarding COVID-19 and face masks. This is hardly a review of the literature at all.”

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Californians have expressed anger at politicians over the pandemic. After a second shutdown, many turn anger on each other for not being careful.

In a joint statement Wednesday, Wagner and Chau seemed to distance themselves from the Board of Education’s vote Monday, noting they were not involved in developing the guidelines, and encouraged the panel to “remain guided in their plan by the medical professionals.”

“Supervisor Wagner and Dr. Chau did not write, edit or review the ‘white paper’ the Orange County Board of Education brought forward,” the release stated. “[They] believe the Orange County Board of Education should follow the same procedures in determining the best way to safely reopen schools. However, it is important to reopen safely when the epidemiological data makes sense.”

One of the doctors Swaim consulted while researching the white paper was Michael Fitzgibbons, a St. Joseph Hospital-Orange infectious disease specialist who participated in the forum, where he described face masks on children as “burdensome” and “detrimental.”

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Another chosen panelist was Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, a self-described peer support group for educators that calls union actions into question.

In recent years, Sand has had several articles published by Swaim’s California Policy Center, some targeting perceived opposition to charter schools by the government and unions. His most recent piece, “Biden does teachers union bidding,” was published Tuesday.

Barke said the impetus for the forum was to create a transparent and public discussion, after she’d learned Mijares had convened a task force to develop reopening guidelines for 27 Orange County school districts without allowing board members to participate.

Mijares said Thursday he didn’t feel it was appropriate to include board members in what was essentially a nonpublic meeting between superintendents and staff members.

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“Mari made a comment she’d like to attend the meeting, and I said it’s not an open meeting, it’s a meeting of people who largely work in the system,” he said. “Members of the public can’t just walk in there.”

NMUSD elementary students can learn in a 100% virtual school or be in a program that regularly responds to shifting coronavirus orders. A plan for middle and high school students is coming soon.

Barke said board members are frequently kept out of the loop regarding department affairs.

“The public thinks we know what’s going on, but our superintendent never lets us know,” she said. “We were absolutely refused, so I thought I just might have to create a forum of my own and invite the public to view some information.”

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Williams, a primary care physician, sought participation among his colleagues and secured a handful of medical experts for the panel discussion.

Barke invited Sherry Kropp, the retired superintendent at Los Alamitos Unified School District, where Barke’s husband, Jeff, served as a trustee for several years. Jeff Barke, also a primary care physician, is board chair for the Orange County Classical Academy, a public charter school whose petition to operate was approved by the Orange Unified School District board in January.

The campus plans to open next month and “will follow all legal mandates regarding COVID-19 and school opening,” according to the charter school’s website.

“Absent a mandate from a federal, state or county agency, we will open on site as planned,” the website states. “The science and statistics support opening OCCA on August 13th with minimum restrictions including no mandatory masks (but recommended as state/local rules allow) on children or staff.”

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Mari Barke said Wednesday she sees no conflict of interest in her husband’s position with the charter school, since the academy is a nonprofit and was approved locally and not by the county Board of Education, on which she sits.

The Orange County Classical Academy will operate under the aegis of the California Policy Center, Swaim confirmed Wednesday.

The school, according to an article on the California Policy Center website, will “scrap” Common Core learning and offer “nonpornographic, age-appropriate, and medically accurate” sex education classes. It currently has a waiting list at every grade level, Swaim said.

“Our school is trying to find a wealthy benefactor who will allow these students to come in,” he added.

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In separate interviews, both Barke and Swaim described the Orange County Board of Education guidelines not as a mandate, but a tool for parents

“We’re not telling anybody to do anything,” Barke said. “We just wanted [parents] to know there are choices, and it’s up to them to make the best choice for their families.”

The Capistrano Unified School District board of trustees, representing the largest school district in Orange County, approved a reopening plan on Wednesday night that gives students the flexibility to learn 100% online, 100% on campus or to split their time learning virtually and in-person.

Ultimately, school districts will have the final say in adopting their own guidelines for reopening schools if and when state and county officials determine it is safe to do so, rendering the board-adopted white paper authoritatively moot.

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But Barke sees the recommendation as a bargaining tool parents can take to their local school leaders to start their own conversations about the needs of children.

“Talk to your trustee,” she said. “See if there’s a free charter school somewhere you feel you can commute to, see if they’re planning to open. I know my husband’s is.”

Swaim, who is open about his opposition to public employee unions, similarly encouraged parents and guardians who don’t like decisions being made in public schools to act.

“Find a public charter school — those are free to the public and they’re typically superior in terms of a quality education,” he said. “If we can get parents switched into charter schools or private schools, we’re going to make those union schools pay for their failings.”

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Megan Harris and her father, Ray, walk the boardwalk in Laguna Beach on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Orange County coronavirus update

The Orange County Health Care Agency on Thursday reported 873 new cases of the coronavirus and 11 new deaths, bringing the county’s totals to 27,904 cases and 466 deaths.

The number of new infections was down from a one-day record of 1,333 reported on July 8.

Nearly 44% of people who have been infected in the county — about 12,264 — have recovered, records show. Approximately 711 people were hospitalized with the virus Thursday, including 245 receiving treatment in intensive care units. Countywide, ICU bed availability is estimated to be 36.5%.

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The cumulative number of COVID-19 tests administered rose to 334,011, including 5,010 in the past 24 hours.

People between the ages of 25 and 34 account for 6,389 of all infections recorded in Orange County, or about 23%. Children under 18 account for 1,585 cases.

Here are the latest cumulative case counts and deaths for select cities in Orange County:

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  • Santa Ana: 5,225 cases; 122 deaths
  • Anaheim: 4,792 cases; 112 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 1,357 cases; 43 deaths
  • Irvine: 907 cases; 7 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 865 cases; 5 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 668 cases; 33 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 276 cases; 8 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 105 cases; fewer than 5 deaths

Honoring this year’s graduating seniors from high schools in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Laguna Beach and other parts of Orange County.

Cardine writes for Times Community News.


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