COSTA MESA, Calif. (CNS) -- The Orange County Board of Education voted 4-1 Monday evening to recommend opening schools next month without masks to protect against the spread of coronavirus but the decision is not binding on any of the county's districts.
"There has been some confusion, and understandably so, over the role of the OC Board of Education and our agency, the Orange County Department of Education," Orange County Department of Education Superintendent Al Mijares said in a statement before the meeting.
"Locally elected school boards and superintendents will approve and implement plans specific to their districts based on the needs of their schools and communities," Mijares said.
The county's education department "is working to support districts in that effort, and we remain 100% committed to following and sharing the guidance of the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency," Mijares added.
Mijares said the county's education department guide to reopening schools "is in alignment with the California Department of Public Health, which stresses the importance of social distancing and face coverings when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
The board held a meeting last month with experts who concluded in a white paper that requiring students to wear masks "is not only difficult, but may even be harmful over time."
The experts also concluded that "social distancing of children and reduction of classroom size and census may be considered, but not vital to implement for school aged children," and advised that parents "are in the best position to determine the education environment that best suits their children rather than government officials."
If a school district "is unable or unwilling to reopen schools in a manner that resumes a typical classroom environment and school atmosphere, parents should be allowed to send their children to another school district or charter school that will provide that preferred education," the experts wrote.
"In fact, many parents stated they will opt for private schools or home schooling if their child does not have a typical interactive academic classroom environment."
The experts advised regular temperature checks, encouraged "good hygiene with frequent hand washing and the use of hand sanitizer," as well as the cleaning of classrooms, meeting rooms, buses and administrative offices nightly.
The panel downplayed the infectiousness and impact COVID-19 among children, and concluded that teachers are more at risk of getting sick from another teacher or staff member than they are from children.
One of the listed experts, Dr. Steven Abelowitz, issued a statement saying his comments were "either misunderstood or misinterpreted." Abelowitz said he is a "staunch advocate" for face coverings to help stop the spread of covornavirus. He added he believes social distancing is "also an effective tool in slowing and limiting the spread of COVID-19."
Dr. Clayton Chau, the director of the Orange County Health Care Agency as well as the interim county health officer, was also one of the listed experts but distanced himself from the report.
"I served as part of a discussion panel after being invited to attend a meeting of the Orange County Board of Education. I believe that schools should follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health related to reopening, and did not state that social distancing isn't necessary," Chau said.
"I continue to be a strong proponent for public health prevention measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in all settings, including frequent handwashing, physical distancing from those who do not live in the same household, wearing face coverings, covering coughs and sneezes and avoiding touching faces with unwashed hands."
Ed Sibby, spokesman for the California Teachers Association's Southern California branch, said the union is skeptical of any plans to reopen schools at this time.
"We don't see the efficacy of sending students and educators back to school until it's safe to open the schools," Sibby said.
"Orange County's board seeks to pander to the forces of the federal government and (Secretary of Education) Betsy DeVos. We can't control that, but what we can control is how we care about our kids and the safety of our members and continue to advocate for them both."
Superintendents throughout Orange County are opposed to a rush to reopen schools, Sibby said.
Sibby said many of the county's schools do not have central air conditioning, which he said is critical to ventilate and prevent droplets from hovering in the air, which could increase the potential for spreading COVID-19.
"I think our members are like any other professionals who enjoy their work -- this is their students and they want to get back to work, but at the same time they realize one sick child could infect classrooms, take it home to their families," he said.
Some teachers are now discussing the medical vulnerabilities of family members and the risk the virus can pose to them, Sibby said.
"These are life-and-death conversations," he said, adding that a return to school as normal in six to eight weeks is "highly problematic."
Dr. Dan Cooper, a UC Irvine professor of pediatrics, told City News Service he supports children returning to school, but only if there is a plan that includes social distancing, face coverings, and what to do if there is an outbreak.
Cooper said the board's recommendation is a "nonsensical approach" to COVID-19.
"I hate to say this because it's one of those pejorative phrases, but there will be blood on their hands" if any school districts adopt the recommendations, Cooper said. "Just because of their arrogance and hubris. It's something that just disturbs me."
California is blessed with moderate weather so it would be much easier for the state to use large tents to do outdoor schooling, Cooper said.
It is true that children and young adults typically are less vulnerable to the virus, and it is not harmful in any way to have children wear masks, Cooper said.
"You make a game of it, you put a superhero on it, and it's fine. They get it," Cooper said.
Cooper is critical of online-only learning plans, as well. About 40% of the workforce depends on schooling for childcare, Cooper said. Without classes to send their children to, parents may resort to an unhealthy, illegal and unorganized system of babysitters, he said.
"At least you would have kids in a supervised environment, talking to the kids about physical distancing," Cooper said.
Capistrano Unified School District board members are set to consider a plan Wednesday that would provide a combination of on- and off-campus learning.
In kindergarten through fifth grade, parents could choose all in-class learning, half learning on campus and half at home and one in which it is entirely online. In sixth through 12th grades, the options would be half on campus and half online or all online.
The Santa Ana Unified School District board has approved a plan involving three stages of returning to classes in person, said Fermin Leal, a spokesman for the district. The first stage is all online, the second is a hybrid of in-person and online, and the third a more traditional school year, Leal said.
"If school started today, we'd be in Stage 2," Leal said.
Students, depending on the grade level, would report to classes once or twice a week, with the rest of the week learning online, Leal said. Class sizes would be reduced to 10 to 15 students.
All staff and students must wear masks, unless there is some medical exception, Leal said.
But with Santa Ana leading the county in coronavirus cases and considered one of the primary hot spots, the situation is "very fluid," and the school year may start with all online learning, Leal said.
Earlier Monday, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that campuses will remain closed when classes resume Aug. 18 in the nation's second-largest school district.
Beutner said the "health and safety of all in the school community is not something we can compromise."
The San Diego Unified School District also announced Monday campuses will remain closed when the district resumes classes Aug. 31, with all courses remaining online only.