As mask-wearing rules loosen, parents urge O.C. education officials to ‘Let the Kids Breathe’

Kids and parents rally outside the Orange County Department of Education building in Costa Mesa Monday.
Kids and parents at a “Let the Kids Breathe” rally in front of Orange County Department of Education building in Costa Mesa on Monday, where attendees sought to remove mask mandates for public schools.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

As pandemic protocols on face coverings begin to loosen — and vaccinated Californians ponder a mask-free future that could start as soon as June 15 — local demonstrators on Monday urged Orange County education officials to “let the kids breathe.”

Hundreds of parents, many with small children in tow, turned out at the Costa Mesa office of the county’s Department of Education to sound a rallying cry against mandates requiring children to remain masked throughout the school day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidelines for K-12 schools, recommending mask-wearing through the end of the current school year while children under 12 are still unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

At Monday’s demonstration, however, a decidedly different narrative predominated.

“These masks — they’re not going to protect you from this virus,” said Costa Mesa mom and holistic nutritionist Kristi Acuña. “You have a soaking wet, chemical-filled napkin on your face, and you’re inhaling it back in. Common sense will tell anybody this is toxic.”

A parent at a "Let the Kids Breathe" rally outside the Orange County Department of Education office in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Rain and cool temperatures did not deter a crowd, whose size organizers placed at more than 350, from airing grievances against restrictions they say have run amok and sharing stories of children shamed or punished by administrators for pulling their masks down to draw a breath.

They came hoping their outcry might move Orange County officials to take action. But undoing a portion of a statewide mandate is not under OCDE’s purview, spokesman Ian Hanigan clarified Monday.

“The Orange County Department of Education is not authorized to make decisions on the use of face coverings or social distancing in schools, nor would we be empowered to create any policies related to public health,” Hanigan said in an email.

“By law and by practice, we follow and share guidance from the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency,” he continued.

Although asking county officials for relief may be a non-starter, concern among parents still runs high.

Costa Mesa resident Hengameh Abraham, representing the Greater Costa Mesa Republicans, described how her 6-year-old son recently forgot to take his mask to school and was thrown into a panic out of fear of getting in trouble or, worse, dying from COVID-19.

“It took us the whole weekend to convince him COVID is not going to kill him,” she said. “The brainwashing and the damage they have been doing to children is going to have a lasting effect.

“Keep pushing us, and you will see every mom and grandmother here, we will pull our kids out of school,” she continued.

Costa Mesa mom Maren Chen at a "Let the Kids Breathe" rally at the county education office building in Costa Mesa Monday.
Costa Mesa mom Maren Chen, who participated Monday in a “Let the Kids Breathe” rally, shared concerns about making small children mask up while at school.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Many protesters bore signs decrying facial coverings and government overreach — one banner demanded the ouster of Orange County Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau — while others affirmed the importance of parent choice and standing against tyranny.

Still others took a more lighthearted approach, such as kid-held placards that read: “Think of all the smiles I’ve missed.”

Costa Mesa mom Maren Chen’s sign bore the beaming face of her 6-year-old son, Rowan, and the words “Masking this face is a disgrace.” She said the mask-wearing habits of kindergarteners leaves much to be desired.

“[Masks] come home disgusting and unsanitary — it’s more of a health hazard,” Chen added. “At this point, there’s absolutely no reason to keep masks on at school. It hinders their learning and, frankly, it’s gross.”

Rowan, who ran and played in the parking lot outside the OCDE office while his mom listened to speakers, said he didn’t favor facial coverings.

“I really don’t like wearing masks all the time,” he said. “I think it’s boring. They don’t make me breathe good, and it makes me want to take it off.”

Chase Beamish, 12, at a rally Monday  in Costa Mesa, where attendees asked for a mask mandate to be lifted in O.C. schools.
Chase Beamish, 12, at a rally Monday in Costa Mesa, where attendees asked for a mask mandate to be lifted in O.C. schools.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Layla Beck, 9, of San Juan Capistrano agreed.

“I can’t breathe in a mask,” she said. “I just think it’s sad for a child to have to get the vaccine and to have to wear a mask.”

Some speakers wondered aloud why it was OK for people to go unmasked in restaurants and stores when kids, who pose a much lower risk of infection, must remain covered at school. Others encouraged parents to take definitive action.

Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tem Tito Ortiz — whose refusal to wear a mask recently caused the City Council to continue holding its meetings virtually, as opposed to in person — relayed how his own son was worried about being teased by friends for non-compliance.

“I said, you know what, you stand up and say ‘I’m taking my mask off because I need to breathe,’” Ortiz said. “If we don’t stand our ground and do what we need to do for our children’s future, we’re going to look back [one day] and say, ‘What the hell happened?’”

Orange County resident Peggy Hall urges parents in a rally in Costa Mesa Monday to send their kids to school without masks.
Orange County resident and outspoken anti-masker Peggy Hall urges parents in a rally in Costa Mesa Monday to send their kids to school without masks.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Peggy Hall, a former teacher and devout anti-masker who started the mask-opposition website the Healthy American to inform residents of legal ways to evade mask mandates, called the coronavirus a hoax and said she’d rather die starving in the street than participate in the “Luciferian ritual” of mask wearing.

“You have the power — send your child back to school without a mask on,” she told parents. “That’s all you need to do. Stand up to tyranny. It’s the difference between slavery and freedom.”

Sarah Beck, mother of 9-year-old Layla, was involved in previous rallies outside the OCDE office, like one held in September to ask schools to reopen. Having petitioned school board members to lift the mask mandate, she’s now taking her complaints to the county.

A former teacher who earned her master’s degree, Beck doesn’t like mask wearing and distance learning, but also doesn’t like being lumped in with right-wing Trump supporters. She wishes there were some way for people on both sides of the debate to find common ground.

“I almost feel like there’s this push to divide us,” she said. “I just wish there was more compassion and reason and understanding on both sides. Because division isn’t going to help.”

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