Nearly 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic and mask rules continue to spark debate.
That was the case at the August 17 Los Alamitos Unified School District Board of Education meeting, the first since the 2021-22 school year started at the district’s nine campuses in Seal Beach, Rossmoor and Los Alamitos.
Speakers took aim at the California Department of Public Health’s universal indoor mask requirement for K-12 schools during the public comment period. The mandate was not on the meeting agenda.
The LAUSD is tasked with enforcing the rule requiring all students and staff to wear masks inside classrooms regardless of their vaccination status. Masks are optional outdoors. The district welcomed students back for full-time in-person instruction this month.
Universal indoor masking is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics as an important measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms.
While some parents agree with the mandate, others continue to push to get rid of masks, or at least make them optional for students. They argue young children are at lower risk of serious complications from coronavirus and worry students’ mental health could suffer by wearing masks in class all day.
That includes LAUSD father Jerry McMillan, one of the 20 total speakers at last Tuesday’s Board meeting.
He said he thinks the mask mandate might meet the legal definition of child endangerment and suggested giving teachers forms to report abuse to local law enforcement. “I’m not currently accusing anyone of abusing my children but I will be providing my [children’s] teachers with these same medical reports so they can see what I see,” he said.
McMillan also said the district has more power to lessen the mask rules locally. Last month, Los Al Unified Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver publicly supported making masks optional while admitting he does not have the authority to do so. That’s the message Pulver got from the Orange County Department of Education and the Orange County Health Care Agency who emphasized school districts must follow the state’s rules.
“I don’t do masks,” a mother of two told the Board, explaining that she thinks masks don’t work, unless it’s a medical grade N95 mask, but she said even those have limits. She said she pulled her kids from McGaugh Elementary and is homeschooling them now because she believes masking children does more harm than good.
“I’m not an anti-masker, an anti-vaxxer and I’m here to advocate for my kids,” father Daniel Brant told board members. He said one of his kids suffers from social anxiety. He suggested creating outdoor learning spaces on LAUSD campuses, especially for the TK-2 graders.
“We can put some outdoor shelters or something so that we can do less time in the classroom with masks on and more time outdoors and come to a compromise so we don’t have to have this divided community. We can work on both sides,” Brant said.
Other speakers showed support for the mask mandate and thanked board members for enforcing it.
“It’s a scary time and I think you’re doing a fabulous job, taking the science and the standards into account and I appreciate that very much,” one woman said.
Los Alamitos High School biology teacher Drew Sells told the Board that of the hundreds of students he sees daily on campus, nearly none have problems wearing a mask.
“When they see me and they see the other people who are standing there who politely ask them to put their mask on, guess what? They put their mask on and they leave them on for the rest of the period,” Sells said.
In an interview following the meeting last Tuesday, Dr. Pulver said that there were no instances of anyone refusing to wear a mask on an LAUSD campus. According to LAUSD’s COVID-19 Safety Plan, students who refuse to mask up could be placed in an alternative learning setting. Pulver said a “very small” number of students were approved for mask exemptions.
As of August 23, Los Al Unified’s dashboard showed a total of 31 current confirmed COVID-19 infections among staff and students.
This month, Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s top public health official said if the mask mandate is not enforced at schools, COVID-19 cases will rise.
The Delta variant continues to dominate, infecting unvaccinated people at a much higher rate than inoculated people.
According to the Orange County Health Care Agency, as of August 14, the 7-day case rate for unvaccinated people was 43.8 per 100,000. For the fully vaccinated, it was 7.8. Kids 12 and younger are still ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
CDPH says it will decide whether to update the mask rules no later than November 1. Last week, the California Supreme Court denied the Orange County Board of Education’s petition seeking to overturn the mask mandate. A lawsuit launched by the parent group “Let Them Breathe” is still pending, according to its website.
‘The Community isn’t just one voice’
While there were some groans, laughter and applause in the audience during public comment, last Tuesday’s Board meeting remained under control.
In her comments toward the meeting’s end, trustee Diana Hill explained that the Board is not able to get into a dialogue about items that are not on the agenda but she wanted the public to know that trustees are always listening.
“I think sometimes it’s hard for people that are so passionate about whatever position they are taking to realize that there’s probably an equal amount of people that are equally passionate about perhaps the other side. And we as Board members hear all of that,” Hill said explaining that they also get emails and encounter people in the community.
“Our job is to represent the community and the community isn’t just one voice,” Hill said emphasizing that means not involving politics in her nonpartisan position and even putting aside her personal beliefs.
“Believe, please believe, please trust that we are looking to be better tomorrow than we were today. That we will take in all that information and do the very best we can for all of our students,” Hill said.
In Other Board Meeting News:
• Los Alamitos High School senior and new Student Board Representative Will Brandenberger gave his first report. Cheered on by his fellow ASB members in the audience, Will shared stories of Griffins returning to campus for a full school day. “I’ll be the first to say, it was weird to eat lunch at school for the first time in two years but that went away quickly for many as everyone was reminded of the good times they had sitting with their friends,” he said.
• The Board recognized the new leadership team at Los Alamitos High School. Principal Christiana Kraus, in her first year in the position, praised new Assistant Principal Cara Vienna and new Assistant Principal Eddie Courtemarche.
• The Board approved a new contract for $14,200 with Danielle Nava Consulting to continue her work with LAUSD’s Human Relations Advisory Council. She was first hired in late 2018 to serve as the facilitator for what was then called the Human Relations Task Force. Around six speakers during public comment spoke in support of her work with the district. At least three others were critical.
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