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The Orange County Board of Education in a closed session Tuesday night decided to sue Gov. Gavin Newsom to let schools in high-risk California counties reopen for the 2020-21 school year. 

In an announcement earlier this month, Newsom said that any counties on the state coronavirus watch list, which includes Orange County, could not have students in classrooms. 

In a 4-0 vote, the board decided to move forward with the lawsuit. Trustee Beckie Gomez was absent from the meeting when the decision was made. 

“Many families will suffer greatly and experience many unknown, unintended consequences if schools remain closed. We believe students and their families must have the option for in-person learning,” said board president Ken Williams Jr. “We have made the decision to put the needs of our students first.” 

The board will be represented by the law firm Tyler & Bursch at no cost to the taxpayer, according to the board. The firm has offices in Anaheim and Murrieta, and is also part of a lawsuit against Newsom over a ban on singing in churches.

Public commenters came out on both sides of the issue, but an overwhelming majority were against the board pursuing any type of litigation. 

“This board has benefited too long from lack of public oversight, because we trusted you,” one speaker said. “These frivolous lawsuits make it clear that trust was misplaced.”

Speakers who were in support of a lawsuit said the science was on their side, and begged the board to send children back to school before what they characterized as a wave of crime and suicide rolls through communities. 

“I’m here tonight to urge you as a veteran litigator…to litigate the living hell out of the July 17th mandate, order whatever you want to call it that in one fell swoop closed most of our public and private schools in California,” one commenter said. “This is the only thing you will ever be remembered for.”

The only way around the governor’s restrictions is a waiver from the Orange County Health Care Agency, which has said it is waiting on more information from the state.

The decision to sue comes after a report published by the board calling for a return to schools without masks or social distancing, which saw Orange County pulled into a national spotlight in the debate over returning to schools. 

The board also reiterated its support for its report issued earlier this month recommending implementation of in-class instruction to all county school districts. 

Board members said residents had a chance to interact with a panel of experts, and that the report was based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Multiple members of that panel have disavowed the report since its release, saying they were never consulted and disagree with the recommendations. 

The board’s recommendations directly opposed the county’s department of education’s guidance, which has called for widespread use of masks and social distancing in classes.

“We remain laser-focused on supporting our districts and programs as they develop plans for the fall, based on the guidance of state and local public health experts,” said department spokesman Ian Hanigan in a text to Voice of OC on Tuesday night after the board’s vote. 

Board Vice President Mari Barke, a proponent of the return to schools, declined requests to comment, stating a press release with more details would be released Wednesday morning and that Tyler & Bursch would handle any questions.  

Tyler & Bursch did not respond to requests for comment from Voice of OC on Tuesday night.

The county board does not have the power to mandate a return to schools, as each of the county’s 27 school district boards draw up and implement return plans.

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

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