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Could Orange County schools reopen in fall with no masks? Board of Education says they should

Angelyte Pantoja, 18, poses for some family photos after getting her diploma during a drive-thru graduation.
Angelyte Pantoja, 18, poses for some family photos after getting her diploma during a drive-thru graduation at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach on June 10.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Orange County schools could welcome students back to campus this fall — without social distancing or masks — after the education leaders on Monday approved recommendations that sharply contrast reopening plans outlined by their counterparts in Los Angeles and San Diego.

In a 4-1 vote, members of the Orange County Board of Education, with trustee Beckie Gomez dissenting, said they believe a return to schools is the best course for children, in part because science has shown those in the school-age crowd are not at great risk of contracting COVID-19.

Their guidelines — which call for daily temperature checks, frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, in addition to the nightly disinfection of classrooms, offices and transportation vehicles, among other measures — oppose orders issued by the Orange County Department of Education.

The recommendations do not support distancing learners and requiring face masks, two tenets put forth by the county department’s “Orange County Together” guidelines.

Board Vice President Mari Barke and colleagues clarified the board’s suggestions were compiled from a June 24 community forum that convened an 11-member panel of health and policy experts selected by board members and drew more than 1,000 in-person and online attendees.

“Our constituents expect leadership from us, and so we wanted to present the information to you,” Burke said. “These are simply guidelines to be looked at and to follow according to what’s best for your family — take it for what it is and do what you’re most comfortable with.”

Following last month’s forum, advisory guidelines were compiled in a white paper that called distance learning an “utter failure” that revealed class disparities and inspired irregular attendance, at best, and cast social distancing measures and mask-wearing more of a harm than a help.

The Orange County Department of Education office in Costa Mesa.
The Orange County Department of Education office in Costa Mesa. The county’s Board of Education held a special meeting Monday to announce its recommendation that schools return in the fall without implementing the use of face masks and social distancing.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“K-12 children represent the lowest risk cohort for COVID-19. Because of that fact social distancing of children and reduced census in classrooms is not necessary and, therefore, not recommended,” the document stated.

“Requiring children to wear masks during school is not only difficult — if not impossible to implement — but not based on science,” it continued. “It may even be harmful and is, therefore, not recommended.”

The white paper suggests if a school district is unwilling to provide the environment parents feel is best suited to their children’s needs, that parents be allowed “to send their children to a district or charter school that will provide that education.”

Monday’s discussion drew a massive response from members of the public, who emailed more than 2,000 comments to the board. Nearly two dozen in-person commenters addressed the board directly.

Most were parents effusive in their support for the board’s “bravery and diligence.” Many of them stressed not only the education component of their youngsters returning to a physical campus, but also their emotional and mental well-being.

“What we know about online schooling is that it is ineffective,” said a speaker named Leigh. Board policy does not allow broadcasting of last names. She and others worry about disadvantages plaguing children stuck at home, especially among low-income families who may not have online access.

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.

Jennifer, the mother of a daughter who’s a special-education teacher, said she’s especially concerned about “months of lost services” for kids who receive one-on-one attention in classrooms due to their disabilities.

“Disney World opened this weekend, and their lawyer must know something we don’t know,” she added, citing an American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that advocates “all policy decisions in the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

Casey, a mother with two children enrolled at Tustin Unified School District, described at-home learning as “a disaster,” adding that her youngsters soon “became addicted to technology” and wrestling the iPad away from their hands was a constant challenge.

Other parents said they had witnessed the transformation of healthy, well-adjusted and active kids, turning completely “opposite” — or that they had drained their children’s college savings account to pay for private education after the closure of many public schools in mid-March.

“I’m begging you how to figure out how to keep our kids in school,” said Margo, mom to a rising junior at Foothill High School in Santa Ana. She fears an increase in alcohol or drug abuse among families forced to isolate themselves and their youngsters from a regular classroom environment.

Erica, the mother of special-needs children, called wearing masks “a distraction. They hide faces and they hide smiles. Plus, they are not effective.” Moreover, she said “teaching young developing minds not to socialize is a crime.”

Justin, who has a nephew who’s been thriving while studying from home, said he actually appreciates the opportunity for the child to come into his own, away from “social stressors” in class. Out in society now rampant with “white supremacy” and “gun owners,” he asked: “What happens when you try to reintroduce kids into a world like this, one we’re trying to fix?”

Crystal, another speaker, cited the example of 36 countries around the world that have reopened schools “and they have not shown a significant spike” of COVID-19. “My children and dozens of friends will not be attending schools if masks are required.”

Tiffany, mother of a kindergartner, questioned whether it’s “reasonable that a child should be denied a proper education ... be denied the opportunity to work on group projects” and go on field trips. She also asked why kids should “be taught to fear the very air that they breathe?”

Monday’s summations stand in marked contrast to recent steps taken at Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts, where leaders announced Monday campuses would not reopen in August and students would return to online learning, due to a worsening coronavirus surge.

It also follows an announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier that day calling for many counties, including Orange and Los Angeles, to reclose gyms, churches, hair salons, shopping malls and other personal service businesses.

Board member Tim Shaw reiterated Monday the adopted recommendations would hardly count as law in Orange County.

“No one’s forcing anybody,” Shaw said. “If you feel very strongly, very adamantly that you don’t want your child to attend a public school with other children, there will almost certainly be an online option made available to you.”

Many local school districts say they are moving forward with individualized reopening plans that have been in the works for the past several weeks.

Students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, for example, will have the option of attending an online-only school or participating in a program that can shift from in-person classes, to online, to a hybrid model and back in response to shifting health orders. Board members are due to vote Tuesday on the three-phase model, said spokeswoman Annette Franco.

Some schools will likely follow the board’s suggestion, after having done their own research. At Pacifica Christian Orange County High School in Newport Beach, Brandon Gonzalez, the director of athletics and student life, said the private institution plans to return to in-person learning.

He said campus leaders have been meeting each week for the past six weeks to work on what returning to class will look like this fall but haven’t yet decided whether to require face masks.

“I fully understand the medical studies, political views and personal preferences on wanting to wear masks or not wear them,” Gonzalez added, “but it seems they may be a necessary step for the time being... to protect teachers, faculty, staff and those who may be at high risk.”

Sean Mosher, left, Aidan Nguyen, center, and Gavin Mosher display their diplomas.
Sean Mosher, left, Aidan Nguyen, center, and Gavin Mosher display their diplomas after a drive-through graduation at Ocean View High School on June 10.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Luiz Nuñez, a history teacher and the head football coach at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, said while it’s important for kids to return to school due to the social aspect and their mental health, the Board of Education is leaving out the most important factor.

“There is also a responsibility as an educator and coach to make sure the safety of my students, players and coaches [are] a priority,” Nuñez said. “I want to go back into the classroom, but there has to be a plan of safety that takes care of [the] stakeholders. I want to go back, but I want to do it as safely as possible. I don’t believe the [Orange County Board of Education] is taking those measures with their [recommendations].”

Nuñez also teaches at a school where more than half of the student body is Latino. That demographic has been hit hard by the coronavirus in Orange County, as well as in Los Angeles County.

Armed with disaggregated coronavirus data, county officials and health advocates are going exactly where rates are highest to remove barriers to education and testing.

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported Tuesday that out of the 26,120 confirmed total cases of COVID-19 in its county, 6,846 (43.6%) identify as Latino/Hispanic. The cumulative death toll in the county is 433, and 159 of those are Latino/Hispanic.

“Most of our Hispanic [students] at Ocean View have parents who are frontline workers [and] who are constantly exposed to COVID-19,” Nuñez said. “Many of my students and football players were forced to join the labor force and struggled to participate in distance learning. Some had to help younger siblings or shared computers to get their academics duties completed.

“I am torn with what is happening, because I know safety is a priority, but the challenges they face learning from home make it very difficult for them to engage in distance learning. That’s why a safety plan of kids returning to school is so vital. Allowing kids to return with zero guidelines puts students, teachers and staff at risk with so many of our students and families working on the front lines.”

Huntington Beach’s Ocean View School District plans to reopen an online academy as a separate school under the district for families who wish to commit to a year of distance learning.

Others will be brought into smaller classes, with guidelines in place, where they will learn in distanced plexiglass safety corrals, according to Board President Gina Clayton-Tarvin. She said the district was not interested in adopting the recommendations of the County Board of Education, which she said has “zero authority” over local districts.

“It is, frankly, politically driven,” Clayton-Tarvin said of the board’s recent action. “It’s reckless and it’s causing undue fear among teachers, students and parents alike, for no other reason than to wind people up.”

As coronavirus cases across the nation continue to climb and waning suns set on weary parents, the debate over whether and how to reopen brick-and-mortar schools in the fall is beginning to take center stage in political debates.

President Trump jumped into the debate on children returning to school next month. He says yes, but teachers, parents and health professionals are wary.

Earlier in July, President Trump issued a call for American schools to reopen full time, blaming Democrats for wanting to keep them close to prevent him from being reelected. He also threatened to cut off federal funding for educational institutions - authority he does not have.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in a CNN interview Sunday, repeated her mantra that children “need to be back in school,” stopping short of offering a plan for how they can safely return. She has said staggering arrival times for classes and spacing desks 6 feet apart are “flexible” guidelines that may be used as “appropriate.”

Gonzalez, at Pacifica Christian, said politics aside, he is hoping kids can safely return to campus soon.

“Being at school is better than being home, however you look at it,” he said.

Anh Do is a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times.

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