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Huntington Beach City School District approves CDPH mask-wearing guidelines but seeks local control

A woman expresses her displeasure with the Huntington Beach City School District during Tuesday night's board meeting.
A woman expresses her displeasure with the Huntington Beach City School District during Tuesday night’s board meeting.
(Matt Szabo)

Huntington Beach City School District board members faced an angry crowd during their meeting Tuesday night.

In a way, that means little has changed since the coronavirus pandemic began 17 months ago.

Board members were constantly interrupted by members of the audience, many of whom had their children in tow, leaving board President Ann Sullivan frequently calling for order. Many in attendance — though not all — objected to their elementary- and middle-school-aged children having to wear a mask indoors during the upcoming school year, which is the current mandate by the California Department of Public Health.

The HBCSD board unanimously voted to update the district’s 2021-22 COVID-19 safety plan as consistent with the most recent CDPH guidance. Yet, in a subsequent item, the board voted 3-2 to formally request that the CDPH allow local district guidance on mask-wearing for children.

It was clear that at least some of the board members were conflicted, as they addressed the at times unruly crowd.

“I am in favor of parent choice, I’ll be honest with you,” Vice President Bridget Kaub said, to applause from the crowd. “However, I will not go against and break the law. This is the conundrum that we’re under … We’re going to try and mitigate this as much as we can. We’ve had discussions about not only having classroom spaces outdoors, but also having scheduled mask breaks.”

Kaub added that she has made multiple calls to state Sen. Dave Min and Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris to try to address the situation.

“It’s important to understand that there’s even disagreement in the scientific community, but we have to follow the law,” she said. “I am not going to put the district in financial peril, and I’m not going to open my family up for criminal prosecution.”

Several members of the audience carried signs. One woman raised a sign that said “COVID is a Scam.”

The Department of Public Health guidelines, updated on Aug. 2, state that masks are optional for children in kindergarten through 12th grade outdoors. However, they are required to wear them indoors, unless they have a medical exception.

Huntington Beach City School District board members debate a point during Tuesday night's meeting.
(Matt Szabo)

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all children over the age of 2 wear masks when returning to school this fall, regardless of vaccination status.

Dr. Eleanor Hawkins, who has two children attending school in the district, spoke Tuesday over jeers from the crowd about the dangers of the Delta variant.

“If we can’t keep it under control, we’re going to be right back in a lockdown, virtual situation that I don’t think any of us would like,” she said. “We’re getting to a point where vaccines for children, for those who want it, will be available relatively soon … I think it’s respectful to all families to try to continue the masking to allow us to protect our children.”

Others in the audience voiced their displeasure at the mask mandate, including a couple of teachers. Coleen Largey is a kindergarten teacher at Hawes Elementary, and a 20-year teacher in the district.

She noted that district teachers had 46 days of instruction with their students last spring after the district’s elementary school students returned to full-time in-person instruction on April 22.

“We need to move beyond where we were,” Largey said. “At the end of the year, we had to wear masks indoors and we had to distance … Please don’t make us start this year with children saying, ‘I’m always sweating, these are terrible.’ Let the teachers go home without headaches from wearing masks all day.”

The board members debated over the resolution requesting that the CDPH revise its face covering guidance for schools. The resolution, originally requested at the July 20 board meeting, cited five declarations that were eventually removed. Those included that school-aged children are far less likely to contract and transmit COVID-19, that current infection rates and deaths have dramatically fallen and that restrictions on capacity, distancing and use of masks have been lifted.

The last paragraph of the resolution was also amended to continue to request district control of mask-wearing, but remove the word “optional” from that request.

“We have a strong desire for parents and students to have the masking mandate limited,” said board member Shari Kowalke, who introduced the amended resolution. “We’re asking for local control. Let’s make the resolution short and sweet.”

The amended resolution passed 3-2, with Kowalke, Kaub and clerk Paul Morrow voting in favor and Sullivan and Diana Marks voting against.

Huntington Beach City School District welcomes students back for the first day of school on Sept. 9, and the next scheduled board meeting is Sept. 14.

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