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Students will still have to wear masks at school, but the strategy on how to enforce the statewide mandate will now fall on the shoulders of school districts across Orange County. 

The previous statewide guidelines called for students who refused to wear masks to be sent home. 

Now, school districts will have to craft policies on how to handle that situation. 

The abrupt change sparked confusion around the county, similar to how the state workplace safety regulatory board did when it whiplashed on jobsite masking policies last month.

[Read: Fully Vaccinated Workers in OC Can Now Drop Their Masks While on the Job]

The classroom changes also sparked confusion amongst Orange County Supervisors. 

“What are the current rules and what is the responsibility of the county health department in respect to enforcing those rules?” Supervisor Don Wagner asked OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau during Tuesday’s meeting.

Chau said the state health department made a series of changes, including removing physical distancing requirements and who would have to quarantine after a virus exposure. 

He also said it’s not up to the county to regulate masks in schools.

“As a health officer of the county government, it is not our responsibility to enforce. It is on the local school jurisdictions,” Chau said.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control put out guidelines allowing vaccinated students and teachers to go without a mask in the classroom as long as three feet of social distance was implemented.

The CDC also recommended testing, contract tracing, handwashing, cleaning and increased ventilation. 

Based on those recommendations, the California Department of Public Health put out their own guidelines yesterday which will continue the mask mandate indoors at schools across the state, regardless of whether students and teachers are vaccinated or not.

The Monday guidelines initially prohibited unmasked students from being on campus if they didn’t have an exemption.

The state walked back that prohibition later the same day, leaving it up to individual school districts on how they will enforce the mask mandate.

Some school district officials in the county last week were hopeful the mask restrictions would loosen, but said they’d follow whatever the state guidelines were.

State health officials last week said they’re continuing the mask requirement indoors because schools in California can’t accommodate physical distancing and so students wouldn’t be singled out for being vaccinated or unvaccinated prior to the release of the Monday guidelines.

The state guidelines argue that masks are the most effective mitigation for transmission at schools.  

Epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin, a public health expert at UC Irvine, told the Voice of OC last week masks alone would not be effective in stopping transmission and there needs to be a focus on making sure classrooms are well ventilated.

He also said the virus will likely be transmitted by younger people and schools could contribute to more virus spread.

Both state and CDC guidelines recommend that all those eligible for the vaccine get vaccinated. 

Children under the age of 12 are ineligible to take the shot.

The OC Supervisors’ Tuesday discussion on masks came after Supervisor Katrina Foley raised questions about the overall status of the county’s pandemic situation before the board voted on a CalOptima contract aimed at vaccinating homeless people. 

“Overall we’ve seen an increase (in cases),” Chau told Foley. “We are now at … overal 1.8% case positivity.” 

A week ago, the positivity rate was 1.4%. 

Vladimir Minin, a bio statistician who tracks infectious disease data at UC Irvine, said his calculations show Orange County’s positivity rate is actually hovering around 2.4% 

That’s because, Minin said, he uses a five-day lag, instead of the seven-day the county uses.

Essentially, he averaged out the cases starting July 8, instead of July 6. 

Minin said people should think about taking extra precautions to help curb the recent case increases.

“I’m all for being a little more cautious in terms of my behavior and risk taking because I don’t want my child to not go to school,” Minin said in a Tuesday phone interview. “I’m not saying we should panic.”

Minin, along with the epidemiologists he works with, like Shin, largely attribute the recent rise to the Delta variant.

As of Tuesday, 119 people were hospitalized, including 25 in intensive care units, according to the OC Health Care Agency

The virus has now killed 5,133 people.

Meanwhile, Supervisors canned the regular COVID updates at their meeting last month, which was attached to the local emergency declaration that used to be routine at meetings since the pandemic began.

The board decided to not bring the item back until changes to a statewide emergency declaration are made. 

Thus, during consideration of a CalOptima vaccination contract item, Foley asked Chau, the county health officer, questions about the overall state of the virus situation in Orange County. 

That overview would’ve been included in the COVID update.

Residents began yelling at Supervisors during the meeting to let them speak on the CalOptima contract, after supervisors discussed school guidelines and the pandemic situation. 

But nobody turned in a speaker card before the item was called. 

“The rules require the speakers to give to us the cards before the item is called. And that was not done with respect to item 16. But item 16 was … a fairly routine business item. Supervisor Foley brought up the extra issue we ended up chatting to Dr. Chau about,” Wagner said. 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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

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