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In a couple of months, Orange County school will be back in session for the fall semester. With vaccination rates climbing and masks coming off, questions remain if K-12 students will get to remove their face coverings too.

Currently, masks are required indoors at schools and a three-foot social distancing is required between all students. 

However, the state public health department is waiting for further updates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before releasing new guidelines for the 2021-2022 school year, according to an email from the department sent to the Voice of OC.

Local school districts across the county plan to follow the California Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) guidance on masks at schools which they expect to be updated soon.

“We’re following the guidance because that’s how we keep our schools open and that’s how we’ve had them open for most of the year. Until we receive specific calls for guidance we’re not sure what we’re going to do,” Newport-Mesa Unified School District Trustee Karen Yelsey said in a Tuesday phone interview.

Other precautions set up last year at school districts are disappearing, like employee temperature checks and plexiglass barriers. Outside masks are optional as long as social distancing is in place.

“We are going back in the fall, business as usual,” Yelsey said.

But if the guidance doesn’t change from the state, masks indoors may still be required in the fall.

Yelsey said she hopes the updated guidance will loosen the mask restrictions for students.

County Board of Education Urges State to Change Mask Guidelines

Orange County Board of Education listens to public comments on vaccination passports and ethnic studies on May 5, 2021. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

On Wednesday, the Orange County Board of Education passed a resolution 4-1 advocating for masks to be optional for students with very little discussion.

As part of the resolution, the board will send a written request to the state’s public health department urging them to eliminate the mask mandate in the classroom, at summer camp and at youth sports.

The mask resolution titled on “healthy children” was put forth by Trustee Mari Barke who was made president of the board at the same meeting and includes a list of citations.

Trustee Beckie Gomez — the sole dissenting voice — asked that the resolution be made available to her electronically. The links on the resolution attached to Wednesday’s agenda can not be copied or clicked.

Last year the debate on whether children should wear masks at school to prevent the spread of the virus intensified after the Orange County Board of Education recommended a return to the classroom without social distancing or masks.

At that meeting over 4,000 emails were sent in from teachers, students, parents, medical professionals and residents — a majority of whom were against the recommendations, scared they would increase transmission of the virus as well as the death toll.

Others worried about the mental and social impact having to wear a mask would have on children. Some went as far as to call it “child abuse.”

In the end, it will be up to the state and the individual school districts to decide on masks at schools — not the county board of education. This was also the case last year.

Gila Jones, the clerk on the board of trustees of the Capistrano Unified School District, said the Coronavirus restrictions are not really set by school districts but rather it’s up to the state and the county. 

“We can make stronger restrictions, but we can’t make weaker restrictions,” Jones said. “Neither the state nor the county was requiring that schools remain virtual at the end of last year but a lot of school districts did.”

The Mask Debate at OC Schools

On June 23, trustees in the Capistrano Unified School District voted 5-2 on a resolution calling for the state’s public health department to expedite a change in their mask guidelines for students at school at the request of trustee Lisa Davis.

“Masks should 100% be optional. It would be nice if (CDPH) would give us some guidance and do it expeditiously as we’re trying to prepare for school and the learning loss and the mental health and the issues that all surround it.”

Lisa Davis, Capistrano Unified School District trustee

The resolution states parents and students want the mask requirements to be lifted as well as have reported rashes, eye infections, asthmatic symptoms and anxiety because of wearing masks.

It also states that children are less likely to spread the virus and have “serious outcomes” from Covid. The resolution from the County’s board of education makes similar statements.

Yet epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin, a public health expert at UC Irvine, said children definitely contribute to transmission of the virus especially now that many adults have been vaccinated.

“Schools are almost definitely going to be places where COVID-19 transmits and then kind of spills over to households and communities so that definitely has occurred, especially with respect to variant Alpha that occurred in the UK. It was primarily driven by schools.”

Sanghyuk Shin, an epidemiologist and a public health expert at UC Irvine

He said masks alone will not be effective enough. There is a need for increased ventilation in classrooms as well as investments in testing and contract tracing.

Shin also said infections are likely to increase in the fall and winter especially among unvaccinated people.

“We’re going to see a lot of unvaccinated children that are going to gather together so I think there is a very high likelihood that the virus will be given largely by younger people, especially in students gathering together at school,” he said.

One student spoke at the board meeting challenging the notion that the virus is not dangerous to children and her experiences with MIS-C, a condition associated with the virus.

“Maybe you truly don’t know. Maybe it would help if I told you what it felt like to be sick in the hospital with this. My stomach pain was so bad. I could barely move. I couldn’t eat or keep anything down. I was too weak to walk and if I got up, I would feel nauseous. My insides felt like they were on fire. I had a hard time breathing and staying calm,” the student said.

A crosswalk guard prepares to halt incoming cars for pedestrians on April 27, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Tamara Fairbanks, President of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers’ union, said feelings are all over the place when it comes to masks.

She said in an interview last week that it is way too soon to make a prediction on the future of masks at schools, especially with new variants of the virus.

“I do see children not having to wear masks in the near future. It just depends on what our health climate looks like right before school starts,” she said.

“It also depends on the infection rates. Right now we have low infection rates so I think what we currently have in place is reasonable until the CDC makes a decision on kids wearing masks,” Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks said in the past year mask wearing has meant less infection and that they’re useful.

She said her biggest concern is for teachers and students who have imuno-compromising conditions because they will be in the same room as unvaccinated people.

A school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School district on Sep. 20, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Mask-wearing is not the only issue currently affecting school districts.

Jones said there was a clear and tremendous loss in learning for students during virtual instruction last year, particularly for non-English speaking students and special education students. There was also a loss of learning for students already struggling in school.

“The educationally rich got educationally richer and the educationally poor got educationally poor and I think that it was tragic and I think the state’s response to the situation of English learners and students that are not doing well academically was not very good,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

Santa Ana Unified Prepares for Fall Semester

While some school districts, like Newport-Mesa Unified, are transitioning all students back full time in person, online learning remains an option for other students.

Santa Ana, one of Orange County’s largest cities and among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, will continue hosting virtual learning at most of its schools for the 2021-22 school year.

Fermin Leal, the Chief Communications Officer for Santa Ana Unified School District, said that the high COVID-19 rates during the pandemic encouraged the district to create the accommodation.

“We want to accommodate families who may not be ready to send their kids back either because they are a little bit nervous or they have some other issues,” Leal said. “We are going to accommodate those students in virtual learning.”

Kaylee Hernandez, a Santa Ana High School Student, does her distance learning from home on Oct. 16, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Leal also said that the district sent out a survey to gage number of families who wanted to stay online. Of the 24,000 responses, 88% of families want their students to return to campus full time and the rest want to continue online.

Judging from the survey results, approximately 5,000 K-12 students in Santa Ana Unified may continue online in the fall.

“Our community was one of the hardest hit. We have multiple families living in one household, a lot of our parents work front-line jobs, food services or just dealing with the public,” Leal said. 

“We have a little more concern in our community than maybe others do, so that’s why we are trying to really work to make sure that we meet the needs of everyone. That’s our goal for the start of the school year.”

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

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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