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The Orange County Board of Education approved guidelines for returning to school that advocate for the use of no masks or social distancing in a 4-1 vote on Monday night. 

Those recommendations run directly against both the state and the county’s own education departments as teachers and students prepare to return for the fall. 

The guidance came from a panel of medical experts and education leaders, and also included Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau and County Supervisor Don Wagner. 

In a 36-page report to the Board of Education, the panel laid out concerns over the use of masks and social distancing, stating it was “not acceptable” to delay the reopening of schools and that the use of masks would be “impossible to implement.” 

The report did not delve deep into online instruction, but called it an “utter failure,” and that its reliance on parental oversight was a “fatal weakness.” 

Beckie Gomez, the only board member to vote against adopting the recommendations and the only one wearing a mask on the dais, said the report and the board had failed to discuss the issue properly with the public. 

“A dialogue is a conversation,” Gomez said. “We failed in doing that.”

Gomez also brought up concerns about where the report got its information, flipping through it and pointing out multiple points where the document failed to attribute its material.

“As an educator, when you say something you should be able to back it up. And there are many places we don’t back it 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.”

She also took issue with the report’s short analysis of distance learning. 

“For distance learning, in some cases yes, it was a failure, because we didn’t equip our teachers quickly enough. We shut down our schools with 24-48 hours notice. We can’t train someone in that time,” Gomez said. “Somebody that says it’s an utter failure doesn’t know about online teaching. We need to give our teachers tools.”  

Outside of Gomez’s comments, most of the board’s 20-minute discussion revolved around the fact that the approval of the report was just guidelines being passed down to districts, not official requirements, and that parents could still choose to keep their children home. 

“(The report) is not a mandate, we’re not forcing anybody. We wanted to give an opportunity for trustees and districts to have a differing opinion,” said board President Ken Williams Jr., who put forward the motion to adopt the guidelines. “We here in America are struggling with the outbreaks, I want to validate everyone’s position here.” 

Board member Tim Shaw, who also serves on the La Habra City Council, emphasized the report was not simply endorsing a return to normal schools, pointing out that regular temperature checks were recommended, along with calling for students and staff to stay home if they felt ill.

“It’s not just back to business as usual,” Shaw said. 

The only change made to the report by staff was to add a provision that would allow special treatment for students with disabilities that was put forward by Shaw. 

The board’s decision runs counter to actions taken by school districts in neighboring counties, including announcements earlier Monday by the Los Angeles Unified School District and San Diego Unified School District that they would be starting the school year virtually.

The move also comes on the heels of an order by Gov. Gavin Newsom again shutting down churches, indoor malls, barbershops and gyms in all counties on the statewide watch list, including Orange County.

Ultimately, individual school districts will make the final decision on how students will be coming back to school, but the education board’s recommendations come at the beginning of a week filled with smaller school board meetings to lock in return plans. 

The report the Orange County education board approved set off a massive response from county residents, with advocates on both sides coming out to share their opinions. The board meeting received over 2,500 written comments on the proposed guidelines, a record for the body, according to Nina Boyd, the board’s assistant secretary and an associate superintendent. 

None of those comments were read at the meeting, with the board accepting less than 25 in-person commenters over 40 minutes who were overwhelmingly in favor of the return to schools leading to immediate social media condemnation Monday night of the board’s decision to not make available the written comments.

It wasn’t immediately clear where or how the public could view those comments or which way the commenters leaned. The Voice of OC has requested copies of all comments submitted. 

The board pushed the decision on how to handle the comments to the panel’s next meeting on Aug. 5. 

People who tried to watch the board meeting from home also struggled to find where it was being streamed. The meeting link provided was through Zoom, but could not support more than 1,000 viewers simultaneously. The meeting was also streamed on YouTube, and with the combined Zoom viewership saw nearly 6,000 viewers during the broadcast. 

The YouTube stream received over 1,000 downvotes after the board’s decision to approve the recommendations. A petition on change.org calling for the county to follow state guidelines has also received nearly 37,000 signatures. 

“Is it reasonable that a child be denied a proper education?” one commenter at the meeting asked. “Is it reasonable that our kids won’t get to dance together at prom?” 

Only a handful of in-person commenters spoke out in opposition, with one sharing a story about how her sister, who works as a teacher, had donated blood marrow and was still immunocompromised. 

“To this time, three years later, she is feeling the effects, but she did in fact save that girl’s life,” the commenter said. “This virus could kill her…teachers are selfless people who probably don’t share stories like this to other people, but should they go back to schools now? Their life is in jeopardy.” 

The Orange County Department of Education released its guidelines for school reopenings several weeks ago, and has said it plans to help districts follow state guidelines and implement the use of masks and social distancing wherever possible. 

“We remain 100 percent committed to following and sharing the guidance of the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency,” said department spokesman Ian Hanigan in an email to Voice of OC before the meeting. 

When reached after the meeting, Hanigan said the department would stand behind its earlier statement. 

A large protest also took place outside the board room in Costa Mesa, with several dozen demonstrators calling for the panel to follow state guidelines.  

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. You can contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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