Orange County educators, parents and community members are at odds over whether masks and social distancing should be required when school districts reopen.

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The Orange County Board of Education organized a special meeting Wednesday evening and invited policy and health experts as well as educators who all voiced support against requiring face coverings at school. 

That conclusion – as well as what some observers called the stacked nature of panel experts – have triggered serious blowback from many educators, parents and community members who are upset over the stance of the panelists and believe masks and social distancing are necessary to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus. 

“Just because the risk of COVID-19 to children is less, it does not make it non-existent. Nor does the risk to adults and seniors who work with and care for children become less because children are suddenly allowed to return to school,” reads a comment submitted by Lauren Stopnitzky, a parent of four in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District.

Many other people believe masks do not prevent the spread of the virus and that children are at low risk from the virus so masks should not be required. Some also feel that masks disadvantage students with special needs.

“I personally view the masking of children at schools as a form of child abuse and the very thought of it turns my stomach,” said one person during public comments. “Please no masks, no distancing, no new normal.”

Board members listed four principles in the agenda for the meeting on how to open up schools again. One principle states that social distancing children is unacceptable, another states requiring children to wear masks is an impossible task not based on science and is unacceptable.

These principles have caused concern and anger from some members in the community as Orange County’s daily hospitalizations and pace of deaths from the Coronavirus have been rising in recent weeks. 

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said at the meeting that the data is not trustworthy and that the public is spooked. 

“They’re going to see these increased hospitalization numbers and they’re going to assume rightly that that’s COVID blowing up but what’s really right is more people are finally going back to the hospital,” Wagner said.

Wagner added that because more people are going to the hospital for unrelated matters they’re getting tested positive for the virus. 

While Wagner was publicly backed up on the question about the hospital numbers by County Public Health Director Clayton Chau, neither shared hard data at the meeting to detail the extent of the trend. 

Five percent of cumulative Coronavirus cases in Orange County have been in people 17-year-olds or younger, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Former students in the Los Alamitos Unified School District have submitted a letter to the board demanding appropriate guidelines from the panelists which has garnered over 590 signatures from educators, parents and community members in the county. 

The letter is in support of social distancing as well as wearing masks when schools open and provides links to medical journals and the Centers for Disease Control.

“While children may face lower risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality this doesn’t mean there is no risk,” said Lyn Stoler, a public health professional who submitted the letter.

“Viral load is high even if cases may appear less severe in children. Asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic children may still pose a transmission threat to their community and family members.”

Stoler said biomedical literature has overwhelmingly shown that social distancing is associated with drastic and significant reductions of COVID-19. Stoler also said the outline approach by the board would put students with autism, intellectual disabilities and people of color at great risk.

Panelists spoke against the wearing of masks and social distancing at schools.

Dr. Simone Gold, a Health Policy Attorney and Emergency Medicine Specialist on the panel said there is no science to support masks and that it is public hysteria that is hurting children and not the virus. She also there is no rational reason to change the system.

“It’s obviously very unnatural for a child to wear a mask, but if there was a really important reason to do it, maybe we would do it. The science simply isn’t there for things like masks,” Gold said.

Dr. Mike Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist and panelist referred to by officials as a hospitalist said that for the general population masks do reduce viral spread by containing droplets but it’s not very great. 

“Children are not tiny adults and masks in the school room would be burdensome and again as one of the parents said ineffective. Other countries such as Germany have exempted primary and junior high schools from wearing masks while the children are in their classroom,” Fitzgibbons said.

The Center for Disease Control, the California Department of Education and even the Orange County Department of Education all recommend that face coverings be worn when schools open up again.

Some members of the public are concerned that the board cherry picked it’s panelists and the public commenters to speak against public health measures.

“I also strongly feel that this board and panel are incredibly biased, cherry-picked and are not being truthful to the parents looking for support and guidance. Several comments made by panelists tonight are untrue,” said Elizabeth Hubbard, an alumni of Los Alamitos High School.

Gold, Fitzgibbons as well as panelists Dr. Michael Eilbert and Dr. Steven Abelowitz were among hundreds of physicians who cosigned a letter to President Donald Trump in May calling for schools and universities to reopen and warning him of what they described as the exponentially growing negative health consequences of the shutdown. Gold’s name was signed first.

According to the Associated Press, the letter was released while the Trump campaign was making an effort to recruit doctors to call for the reopening of the country without waiting for safety benchmarks proposed by the federal Center for Disease Control and prevention. Gold told the Associated Press that she was not coordinating her efforts with the campaign.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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