O.C. Board of Education tells schools social distancing isn’t necessary for students and masks could be ‘harmful’

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The Orange County Board of Education voted Monday to push for the reopening of campuses without many of the widely recommended coronavirus safety protocols.

At a 6 p.m. meeting, the board voted 4-1 to approve recommendations for reopening schools, saying that social distancing among students is “not necessary” and wearing masks is difficult to implement and “may even be harmful.”

The final decision rests with each one of the 28 school districts in Orange County. 

“Because of the established link between social-distancing and child harm, we cannot support extraordinary efforts aimed at social-distancing at school,” the board said.

Masks are mandated statewide by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

While the guidelines did not recommend reducing classroom capacity, officials did call for regular temperature checks and good hygiene practices. 

While the board does not set policies for the county education department, its push to reopen schools has ignited backlash and plans for a protest outside the county’s education department in Costa Mesa at 5 p.m. Monday.

In a statement, Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares stressed the distinction between the five-member elected board and the Orange County Department of Education, saying the latter had worked to develop a guide for reopening schools in alignment with statewide public health standards, including social distancing and face coverings.

“The five-member OC Board of Education, which has separate responsibilities, is hosting today’s meeting to discuss a white paper with alternative recommendations,” Mijares wrote. “The board majority’s recommendations are not binding.”

A Change.org petition calling for O.C. schools to follow the state’s reopening rules has garnered more than 25,000 signatures. It had just 1,000 signatures Sunday.

“For the health and safety of our Teachers, Staff, and Students the recommendations set forth by the Orange County panel are unacceptable,” the petition reads.

Health and education officials across the country have been warning that reopening schools for in-person instruction would be dangerous and could result in increased coronavirus transmission.

In neighboring Los Angeles County, L.A. Unified School District announced Monday that in-person classes will not resume when the school year begins Aug. 18 as the county experiences skyrocketing numbers of coronavirus infections. LAUSD was joined by San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest school district, in that move.

The O.C. board members said that while closing schools in late March was “reasonable at the time,” continuing the closures would have “disastrous implications for children, their families and community.”

The board called distance learning “an utter failure,” describing disparities among students in their access to technology and frustration experienced by both parents and teachers.

The O.C. board bases the recommendations on guidance by the American Academy of Pediatrics that claimed children “may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection” since they’re less likely to present serious COVID-19 symptoms.

“Children play a very minor role in the spread of Covid-19. Teachers and staff are in greater danger
from one another – from all other adults, including parents – than from children,” the board’s recommendation document reads.

In announcing the continued closure of L.A. schools, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said there’s not enough research to back up claims that children are less likely to carry the virus, and said the reason why fewer children are testing positive is because they’re not frequenting high-spread places.

On July 1, the O.C. Health Care Agency and the O.C. Department of Education released a guide with best practices for reopening schools. It recommended working to resume in-person instruction, complemented by online learning options, and called for cloth face coverings for all staff, with students “encouraged” to use the masks as well.

Those guidelines are in line with the state’s guidance document, which recommends reduced classroom capacity, face coverings and physical distancing. 

The O.C. Board of Education said that their guidelines apply for students of all ages between kindergarten and 12th grade, but they are only recommendations and not rules.

The recommendations came after a special meeting last month that saw the board’s conservative majority emphasize in-class education and featured health experts who sided against the use of face coverings and social distancing measures outlined by California’s health department and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the O.C. Register reported.

Information on how to join Monday’s O.C. school board meeting can be found here.

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