California’s Supreme Court on Wednesday quickly denied a petition from Orange County’s Board of Education in their effort to overturn Gov. Gavin Newsom’s school mask mandate — just eight days after their request was initially filed.
A spokesperson from the Governor’s press office told Voice of OC in an email on Thursday the state’s goal has been to get kids safely back to the classroom by relying on strategies like universal masking.
“The Supreme Court rejecting this effort to stand in the way further reaffirms the state’s strategy,” read a statement from Alex Stack, Newsom’s deputy communications director.
The board of education filed the petition on August 10 arguing that the mask mandate has no “sound medical or scientific basis.”
“Above all, the Board also recognizes the importance of keeping our children safe at school and free from policies or practices that will cause them harm. When necessary, the Board will fight to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our county’s kids at school,” reads an Aug. 3 news release.
The board’s position stands in stark contrast to local public health experts.
At an Aug. 12 news conference convened by County Supervisor Katrina Foley, Dr. Coleen Cunningham — a top pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County — said students and staff need to wear masks at schools.
“People are going to point to last year and say there were very few outbreaks, well because there were very few in person schools where nobody was wearing masks,” she said.
Cunningham, who also chairs UC Irvine’s Department of Pediatrics, said COVID-19 could spread like the flu through schools if no precautions are taken.
“We know that if you look at flu every year, you start to see it go up in kids before you start to see it go up in old folks,” Cunningham said. “We know the first group to sort of spread it around the community is usually the kids.”
She said without safety measures, COVID outbreaks are happening.
“What we’re seeing from this year is when people start to get kids together without masks and distancing, we start to get COVID outbreaks,” Cunningham said.
At least four Texas school districts have shut down because of COVID outbreaks, the Associated Press reported.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot banned mask mandates at schools throughout the state.
Similar outbreak trends are playing out at Florida school districts, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold school funding over mask mandates, according to the Washington Post.
Locally, all school staff will have to either prove they’re vaccinated or submit to a weekly testing regiment, following a statewide mandate from California Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragón.
Coronavirus hospitalizations have been increasing throughout OC following a case surge after the June 15 statewide reopening that saw an end to most pandemic restrictions.
As of Thursday, 571 people were hospitalized, including 133 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Orange County is also sitting on an 8% positivity rate.
The virus has now killed 5,169 people, including 28 new deaths reported this month, so far.
The total COVID deaths are almost five times more people than the flu kills in two years, on average.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
The Board of Education is not the only group to challenge the state’s school mask mandate.
The parent group has been rallying at some Orange County school districts and other districts in the state, pressuring their elected officials to make the masks optional.
Some local parents and students have also been showing up to recent school board meetings calling for masks to be optionals.
Earlier this year, the County board of education passed a resolution urging the state to allow masks to be optional for kids.
Some school districts have passed similar resolutions themselves like the Saddleback Valley, Capistrano and the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified school districts.
The state Supreme Court’s decision to deny the lawsuit comes as schools in Orange County are reopening in person for the fall semester.
At a Thursday news conference, Pamela Kahn, health coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, said nobody other than the state can change the mask mandate.
“We are obligated and we do follow the California Department of Public Health guidelines, recommendations and regulations,” she said.
Khan also said up to 75% of school employees have been vaccinated.
The OC Department of Education oversees the county’s 28 school districts, while the OC Board of Education consists of five elected members who hold public meetings and each member represents different trustee areas of the county.
The only powers allocated to the county Board of Education is a final approval on the department of education’s budget and purchasing property.
Individual districts control their own curriculums and own budgets — approved by the county Department of Education.
Kahn said there hasn’t been “a whole lot of problems” with getting kids to wear masks and recommends wearing double layer cloth masks.
“Most of our kids are going along with it and parents recognize the importance of it,” she said.
Kahn also said exemptions to wearing the mask at school need to be made by a doctor.
“Children who have an exemption from the physician that they can not wear masks for whatever reason the physician decides, we require that those children wear some sort of face shield with a drape at the bottom,” she said.
The Medical Board of California issued a warning Wednesday against bogus exemptions.
“… a physician who grants a mask or other exemption without conducting an appropriate prior exam and without a finding of a legitimate medical reason supporting such an exemption within the standard of care may be subjecting their license to disciplinary action,” reads a statement from the medical board.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio