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School districts throughout Orange County plan to enforce the mask mandate from state officials when students return to the classroom this Fall, while they face pushback from some parents and groups who want kids to drop the masks.

So far, it looks like districts’ opinions on the issue are split, as some say they will follow the state’s mask mandate and other school boards are calling on the state to repeal it entirely. 

When asked about the return to school, Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, fully endorsed a mask mandate in schools, saying it was the smallest step that should be taken. 

“I think we should go beyond that, we should make sure our schools are sufficiently ventilated … not just for COVID, but there are so many respiratory diseases and infections that come from bad indoor air quality,” Shin said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

“Opening of schools in this current epidemic environment can only fuel increases for children and family members, along with the greater community,” he added. 

Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics are recommending universal indoor mask wearing at schools. Meanwhile, children under 12 years old are ineligible to get the vaccine.

The California Department of Public Health put out guidance for K-12 schools in July mandating masks at schools, regardless of vaccination status.

An empty Wilson Elementary school in Santa Ana on July 12, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Officials from Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Irvine and Orange Unified School Districts say they intend to follow the state mask mandate.

Santa Ana Unified’s spokesperson Fermin Leal said that the district is also strongly recommending all students, faculty and staff to wear masks outdoors, regardless of vaccination status, excluding some activities like lunch or gym class.

“We are not asking staff or students whether they are vaccinated or not, so this is a way to kind of ensure that everyone is protected, but we are not encouraging or discouraging from voluntarily providing their vaccination status,” Leal said in an interview Tuesday.

Virtually all schools will follow the statewide classroom mask mandate, while some school boards are fighting against it.

Districts Pass Resolutions Calling For State to Change Mask Mandate

Officials in some districts like Saddleback Valley, Capistrano and the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified passed resolutions calling on the state to rethink their school mask mandate and make them optional for students.

Saddleback Valley Unified Board President Suzie Swartz said the resolution board members passed in June was different then other districts and called on the state to make masks optional when it is safe to do so.

The resolution also listed fewer reasons than those of other districts to ditch the mandate.

“Ours was very narrow in our reasoning for it, and our board keenly recognizes that a lot has changed since that resolution was passed,” Swartz said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The transmission rates and infection rates are climbing and the COVID is now hitting school aged children especially hard.”

“We cannot legally adopt a less restrictive measure than what’s mandated,” she said. “So if a student shows up to class without a mask, we will be asking them to put a mask on.”

Swartz added that there is a virtual academy in the district for parents uncomfortable sending their kids back to school or who do not want their children wearing a mask.

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Meanwhile, the Capistrano Unified School District — where over 47,200 students are enrolled — are still reviewing state public health department guidelines, according to an email from spokesman Ryan Burris.

“We have not finalized our plans for the opening of the new school year on August 17,” reads the email. “We will inform all families once we have finalized our plan incorporating [state health department] guidelines for CUSD’s school start.”

Capistrano district officials were the first to pass a resolution urging masks be optional at the request of Board Trustee Lisa Davis.

At their July board meeting, Davis said she would be in favor of suing the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDPH over the mask mandate. 

Students and parents also spoke against the masks during the meeting.

“When in the history of the world have we asked small humans to provide safety for adults? … There is nothing that is showing that children should be in a mask and it will help anything, but there’s a lot of problems with children being in masks as far as mental health as far as anxiety.” 

Lisa Davis, Capistrano Unified School District Board Member

She stood behind her resolution and said in a Tuesday phone interview school districts should consider filing lawsuits.

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Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District officials passed their own resolution last week by a narrow 3-2 vote. The resolution was made at the request of board member Leandra Blades.

Parents who spoke at the meeting fell on both sides of the mask debate, but most were in favor of the resolution giving individuals choice. 

“My kid, my rules. I don’t want you muzzling my kid, otherwise we’ll have to go homeschool,” Public Commenter Ed Gunn said.

Other voices, like Placentia resident and physician Dr. Jeff Suchard, asked the board to follow state health guidelines and expressed concerns of worsening COVID spread.

“The resolution asks us to let our guard down when conditions are getting worse, which will ultimately prolong student distress,” Suchard said.

His wife, Julie Suchard, also spoke at the meeting. Their children graduated from the district years ago.

Julie Suchard said in a Tuesday phone interview the mask issue has been politicized and not every parent in the district is comfortable speaking because they are scared their children will be targeted.

“I just hate seeing kids being the collateral damages. It’s just a scrap of fabric. That’s all it is. And if you could save somebody’s life by wearing a scrap of fabric, you should.”

Julie Suchard, Placentia Resident

Julie Suchard added that: “What I see a lot is people saying that they have their freedoms being taken away from them and as I said, the other night, they don’t seem to understand the difference between inconvenience and oppression.”

Parents Rally to Make Classroom Masks Optional

Districts are facing pushback from parent groups like “Let Them Breathe,” who have been rallying at some Orange County school districts and other districts in the state pressuring their elected officials to make the masks optional.

The group, along with Reopen California Schools, filed a lawsuit against the mask mandate in July. Let Them Breathe has raised over $110,000 for the lawsuit as of Tuesday.

Let Them Breathe has more rallies planned in Orange County, according to their Instagram page. They are listed below:

  • Lowell Joint School District Board Meeting on Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Ocean View School District Board Meeting on Aug. 10 at 6 p.m.
  • Westminster School District Board Meeting on Aug. 12 at 7 p.m.
  • Brea Olinda Unified School District Board Meeting on Aug. 12 at 6:30 p.m.
  • Orange Unified School District Offices on Aug. 12 from 3-5 p.m.
  • Garden Grove Unified School District Offices on Aug. 13 from 3-7 p.m.
  • Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board Meeting on Aug. 17 at 6 p.m.
  • Huntington Beach Union High School District Office on Aug. 17 at 6 p.m.
  • Saddleback Valley Unified School District Board Meeting on Aug. 19 at 5 p.m.
  • Huntington Beach City School District Board Meeting on Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.

OC Board of Education to Sue State Over Masks at School

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Education voted at a special meeting to sue Newsom over the school mask mandate which they say lacks “sound medical or scientific basis.”

[ Read: OC Board of Education Looking to Sue Gov. Newsom Over Classroom Mask Mandate ]

That decision comes after the board urged the state to allow masks to be optional for kids passing their own resolution last month.

The debate has set up another split between the Orange County Board of Education and the county Department of Education. 

While the board members passed a resolution calling on the state to repeal the mask mandate, department officials released a joint statement with the county Health Care Agency saying no districts can violate the mask rules from the state. 

“All Orange County schools must follow the regulations requiring universal masking indoors for students and staff in TK-12 schools,” reads the statement. “Districts must develop and implement local protocols to enforce the mask requirements. Students who do not comply with universal mask wearing guidance may be placed in an alternative learning setting.”

Orange County Board of Education Trustees listens to public comments on recent educational issues involving vaccination passports and curriculum. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

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 both virus transmission and the death toll.

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

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

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

Jillie Herrold is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at jherrold@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @jillieherrold.

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

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