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U.S. lawmakers want answers on O.C. Board of Education decision to reopen schools without masks

The Orange County Department of Education office in Costa Mesa
In a letter issued Tuesday, Reps. Harley Rouda, Linda Sanchez, Katie Porter requested a briefing with Orange County Board of Education members and county health officials on controversial guidelines released Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A group of legislators is asking the Orange County Board of Education Tuesday to explain its recent recommendation for the countywide reopening of schools without distancing and masks, expressing concerns about the ramifications of the decision on health and safety.

In a letter issued Tuesday by Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach), Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier), Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and three other congressional Democrats, lawmakers requested a briefing with board members and Orange County Health Care Agency officials on the guidelines released Monday.

For the record:

12:31 PM, Jul. 15, 2020An earlier version of this story misstated Rep. Harley Rouda’s city of residence. Rouda lives in Laguna Beach, not Long Beach.

“We are deeply concerned by the Board’s decision to not address the health threats that COVID-19 poses to our communities with its recommendations to reopen schools without the use of face masks, social distancing or reduced class sizes,” the letter reads.

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.

It went on to point out that as of Monday, a total of 1,382 cases of the coronavirus had been reported among children under age 17. As of Tuesday, that figure had jumped to 1,436.

Board members approved the recommendations in a 4-1 vote, paving the way for Orange County school districts, should they choose, to reopen in August without smaller class cohorts and with no 6-foot distancing measures or mask rules in place.

The guidelines — which call for regular temperature checks, hand-washing and sanitizing as well as nightly disinfection of school campus surfaces — were compiled in a white paper published following a June 24 community forum, “Opening Schools in Orange County.”

That document attempted to demonstrate an imbalance between children’s low risk for catching and spreading the coronavirus and the harm that widespread lockdowns and isolation are having on young people’s learning as well as social and emotional well-being.

“Continuing the shutdown despite new science and data, our experts said, has been a mistake with disastrous implications for children, their families and community,” the paper stated.

An 11-member panel of physicians, educators and policy makers who spoke at the June 24 forum, including Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau, listened to parents who shared their concerns about the possible continuation of distance learning in the fall — the option selected Monday by officials with Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts.

Panelist and Los Angeles-area emergency physician Simone Gold said science doesn’t support social distancing or masks, the latter of which she likened to “wearing a chain-link fence to keep out a mosquito.”

“It is, therefore, up to you with the consent and advice and pressure of the parents to do what’s in the best interest of our children,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced statewide restrictions Monday, closing all malls, indoor dining, bars, gyms, churches, hair salons, family entertainment, zoos and museums.

In their letter, lawmakers questioned how the white paper concluded masks may be harmful to children. One meta-analysis study cited by the document, Face Masks to Prevent Transmission of Influenza Virus: A Systematic Review, was published in 2010.

“What evidence and research are the Board citing with this statement?” the letter posed. “Did the Board review any emerging evidence, especially the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] emerging evidence cited for the effectiveness of cloth face coverings?”

The letter’s authors also sought clarification on metrics for reopening, responding to instances of infection and the involvement of teachers, staff members and union representatives in the decision-making process.

It is unclear what process board members or panelists engaged in while compiling the white paper or if questions posed by the public were ever answered. Board President Ken Williams said he and Vice President Mari Barke convened the forum but could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

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