Orange County considers reopening schools without masks or increased social distancing

Graduate Dylan Davis is congratulated by Coach John Shanahan as he exits the Laguna Beach High drive-through graduation.
Graduate Dylan Davis is congratulated by coach John Shanahan as he exits the Laguna Beach High School drive-through graduation at Guyer Field on June 11.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Orange County education leaders on Monday are expected to consider a set of recommendations for reopening schools in the fall that does not include the mandatory use of masks for students or increased social distancing in classrooms amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The recommendations, contained in a white paper, widely support schools reopening in the fall. The document states that remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been an “utter failure” and suggests allowing parents to send their children to another district or charter school to receive instruction if their home district does not reopen.

“Among the many compelling expert arguments for reopening our schools, a number of us were also struck by something different, something we might call advice for adults,” the paper states. “Among our greatest responsibilities as adults is our responsibility to model courage and persistence in the face of uncertainty and fear, which is what many families are feeling with the mixed messages and confusion surrounding reopening of schools in the COVID-19 era.”

The discussion comes as the state’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, announced that campuses will not reopen next month amid the ongoing coronavirus surge, and students will continue with online learning.

Orange County has emerged as a hotbed of opposition to mandatory mask rules in public places, and its health director recently resigned after facing intense public criticism and a death threat. Health experts widely say masks are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new restrictions to halt indoor dining statewide, gyms, churches, hair salons and other businesses in much of the state.

The Orange County guidance was compiled from an 11-member panel appointed by the Board of Education last month that includes Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau, County Supervisor Don Wagner, a psychiatrist, an urban studies professor, a public policy professor, a former superintendent and physicians.

The recommendations, even if approved by the board during its meeting Monday evening, would not be county mandates. Orange County’s 28 school districts will ultimately determine whether to reopen in the fall and how their individual schools will operate.

Last month, the Orange County Department of Education published its own list of guidelines for resuming classroom instruction with online learning options. The document, which stresses the importance of social distancing and face coverings, is based on guidance from the state Department of Public Health, said Orange County Supt. Al Mijares.

“The board majority’s recommendations are not binding. Locally elected school boards and superintendents will approve and implement plans specific to their districts based on the needs of their schools and communities,” Mijares said in a statement. “OCDE is working to support districts in that effort, and we remain 100% committed to following and sharing the guidance of the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency.”

Still, the panel’s recommendations have stirred controversy among parents and teachers in Orange County. As of Monday morning, more than 26,000 people had signed an online petition decrying the recommendations and calling on elected officials to adhere to the state’s guidance for reopening schools.

“These recommendations are not just for the safety of our teachers, staff, and students but for every single person they come in contact with,” the petition reads.

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.

The panel’s recommendations touch on several topics that have been widely debated among Orange County residents in the past several months, including social distancing and the use of face coverings to slow the spread of the virus.

The document states that since children represent the “lowest risk cohort for COVID-19 ... social distancing of children and reduced census classrooms is not necessary and therefore not recommended.”

Ryan Schachter, a special education specialist at Corona del Mar Middle School and Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, said he is divided on the Board of Education’s recommendations. He also said he didn’t plan to watch Monday night’s special meeting on Zoom.

“I really don’t know what to think about all this,” said Schachter, who has been teaching for 18 years, 17 of those with the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

“As a special educator, I know that without a doubt, our population is impacted the most by distance learning. As an educator, I want my students in the classroom, where I can directly impact their education. I can talk to them, work with them and relate with them. We just can’t do that with the same intensity and effectiveness online,” he said.

“However, as a parent, and husband to a wife with an autoimmune disorder, I am not sure that being in the classroom without proper safety measures is best for my family or the community in which we live and serve. I am really conflicted on what needs to be done. I don’t like the idea that politics is trying to govern the pandemic as well; that is frightful to me.”

Experts have said that while infection rates among children have been lower than in adults, young people can easily transmit the virus to other relatives, including their parents and grandparents who may be at a higher risk of severe complications.

“The evidence is showing children so far have been less likely to be infected although that comes from a background of our children not being in school,” said Paula Cannon, a professor of microbiology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. “It would be difficult to say that this means children are somehow more resistant to the virus.”

The document also states that requiring children to wear masks was not recommended given that it “is not only difficult — if not impossible to implement — but [is] not based on science” and “may even be very harmful.”

Cannon said she was “astonished” the panelists would claim that the use of masks was not necessary and that she “could not disagree more strongly” with the recommendation.

Face coverings, frequent hand washing and physical distancing have been widely cited among medical experts as among the public’s key weapons to combat the virus. While persuading children to wear masks — and keep them on — can be challenging, it’s important for adults to model the behavior appropriately to make it more comfortable for students, Cannon said.

“There is growing evidence all in favor of the effectiveness of wearing masks,” she said. “The addition of that statement tells me this is not a set of recommendations grounded in science or best practices.”

“I’m appalled that the leadership who is responsible for the safety of our children and their families would stoop to using such language,” she added. “It’s based on nothing.”

Hannah Fry is a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times. Times Community News editor David Carrillo Peñaloza contributed to this report.

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