The OC Board of Education voted 4-1 (with Beckie Gomez dissenting) to recommend that schools return physically in the fall without implementing the use of face masks, social distancing, or reduced class sizes, at a special meeting on July 13. This is not a mandate. Individual districts will still have the ability to determine the format of schooling in the fall, following guidance from the State.
The Board recommendation was based on a report entitled “Opening Schools in Orange County: Recommendations for the Safe and Effective Reopening of Orange County Schools.” This report was produced as a result of a panel discussion on June 24 at the Board of Education offices, which followed current State guidelines for social distancing. Public attendance at the meeting was limited due to social distancing guidelines.
The report argues that public schools should be opened without the guidelines practiced by the creators of the report or the Board themselves. These reasons include protecting children from domestic abuse, the emotional and mental health of children, the view that children are “less likely to have severe illness resulting from COVID-19,” and that requiring children to wear masks is “difficult.”
The reasoning in the report conflicts with both State and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. The California Department of Education “recommends all staff and students should wear cloth face coverings or face shields while at school or on a bus and maintain 6 feet of physical distance during school activities.”
The CDC recommends that “people wear cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
The report cites statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) about the benefits of in-person schooling, which were also cited by President Trump in an education roundtable he held on July 7, in which the President pushed for a full reopening of schools in the fall.
Since that roundtable, the AAP released another statement. “Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff.” The statement was also signed by the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and AASA, the national superintendents association. “Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools,” according to the AAP statement.
Board member Beckie Gomez, the lone “no” vote, noted a lack of source citations for some of the statements in the report.
“As an educator, when you say something, you should be able to back it up. And there are many places [in this report] we don’t back up,” Gomez said. “I’m not in complete agreement with all of this. We didn’t share enough opposing views. There are some flaws in this report.”
Board President Ken Williams, who voted for the recommendations, said, “This is a very divided issue. This white paper that we’re adopting today has no mandatory enforcement. It is strictly just guidelines, just recommendations.”
Vice President Mari Barke said, “Our constituents expect leadership from us and so we wanted to present information to you…These are simply guidelines to be looked at and to follow according to what’s best for your family.”
Board member Tim Shaw, who voted for the recommendations, suggested adding an exception for children with underlying health conditions, such as his nephew who has cystic fibrosis, a lung disease. Shaw said that the board recommendation is not mandatory, and that the report recommends safety measures such as temperature checks, and extra sanitizing measures.
Board member Lisa Sparks, who supported the recommendations, pointed out the flaws of teaching online, and acknowledged that the data around COVID-19 is still emerging.
Around 2500 public comments were submitted on the item. No ecomments were read during the meeting. Instead, the Board listened to 25 in-person comments, many of which were in favor of the report’s recommendations.
Prior to the meeting, a petition was created on Change.org urging the Board to follow State guidelines for re-opening schools. As of July 13, the petition had gathered over 45,000 signatures.
A large group of protesters also gathered outside the meeting.
Following the Board vote, a group of Orange County congressional representatives submitted a letter to the Board requesting a briefing from the Board of Education over its decision.
“Last night’s Board meeting highlighted the worries held by parents about their children’s sense of normalcy and emotional health. Just as valid are the concerns for children’s, teachers’, and staff’s physical health. 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 states.