Tulare County calls to unmask state mandate for return to school this fall

Parents, school districts ask Board of Supervisors to support local decision making on masking on campus

An emotional plea from parents to remove the mask mandate in local schools last week led the Tulare County Board of Supervisors to consider a resolution supporting local school district and parental choice for students this week.

The resolution noted school-age children had resumed normal activities such as playing sports, dining out with family and friends and participating in other activities all without masking or social distancing since their summer vacation began. To date there have only been two COVID-related deaths among the population aged 26 and younger in Tulare County and there were only 17 confirmed cases of people being treated for COVID in local hospitals as of July 13. It goes on to state masks hinder students’ ability to communicate through facial expressions, a crucial piece of child development, mental health and physical well-being, and may impede the ability of English learners to process their second language.

Based on those factors, the resolution states the board of supervisors will support local school districts in their decisions on safety protocols, parental choice in masking and seeking the assistance of state and federal government agencies and elected officials involved in “school safety protocols in returning these authorities to local school districts and their governing boards.”

The board voted 5-0 to pass the resolution at its July 20 meeting.

“I am happy to ask this county consider a resolution of support for local control and school board autonomy and bring back to our families the abilities to make decisions for kids in terms of what is best to educate our kids and how they recover from what has happened for the last year and a half,” Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said at the July 13 meeting.

It was Vander Poel who requested staff to draft the resolution. A father of three school-age children, Vander Poel said he was calling on the board to put pressure on state representatives to press the Governor on the mandate instead of passing the blame to local jurisdictions.

Breaking science

Tim Lutz, director of Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, said the state has confirmed it will be school boards tasked with enforcing state rules but chided the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) for announcing updated guidance for the fall semester via Twitter on July 12.

“Like so much guidance, it is hastily rolled out and then they make adjustments,” Lutz said.

The announcement confirmed schools should continue to vaccinate and encourage the vaccination of staff, provide a robust testing program and continue to require everyone on campus to wear masks. The guidance was a compromise to balance the need for as many students to attend in-person instruction as possible with the understanding that would make it impossible for most schools to provide 3 feet of social distancing between students.

“Recent evidence indicates that in-person instruction can occur safely without minimum physical distancing requirements when other mitigation strategies (such as masking) are fully implemented,” the guidance reads.

Parents who spoke at the July 13 Supervisor meeting said the announcement flew in the face of science and ignored studies citing mask wearing as having other serious health consequences for students more detrimental to them than COVID-19.

Some parents cited information on child masking from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF which said children 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks and children ages 6 to 11 should be based on other factors such as children’s psychosocial needs and developmental milestones. However, that report was from August 2020 and also advised that children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a one-meter (about three feet) of distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.

CDPH agrees with parents who want a full return to normalcy on several points: Children get COVID-19 less often than adults; children are more likely to get COVID-19 from an adult rather than another child; about half of children have no symptoms even if they have COVID-19.

The concern, according to CDPH, is that the “most at-risk people on school campuses are actually adult teachers and staff.” The state health agency argues maintaining layers of safety measures will continue to protect both adults and children. Those measures include good ventilation, frequent handwashing, staying home if you are sick, and teachers and students wearing masks.

“These safety measures protect everyone, especially the youngest children who can’t get the vaccine yet,” CDPH states on its website.

The CDC actually agrees with all of these points with one major caveat, that masks should be worn in schools by all individuals who are not fully vaccinated, meaning they have had both doses of either Pfizer or Moderna or the single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

“Most studies that have shown success in limiting transmission in schools have required that staff only or staff and students wear masks as one of the school’s prevention strategies,” CDC stated in its July 9 update. “Inconsistent mask use may have contributed to school-based outbreaks.”

According to the CDC, there have been 271 COVID-19 deaths among children ages 5 to 17 years and 120 deaths among children ages zero to 4 through July 7, 2021. While mortality and hospitalization rates among children remain low, Hispanic and black youth were hospitalized at a higher rate than white children.

“For schools and [Early Care and Education] programs, the benefits of in-person school and caregiving need to be balanced against the risk of acquiring and spreading [COVID-19] in these settings,” CDC states.

Self Control

Prior to public comment at the July 13 meeting, Chair Amy Shuklian made it clear the Board of Supervisors had no authority when it came to school safety protocols. Throughout the pandemic, the supervisors found themselves out of the loop on school-related decisions as the Tulare County Health Officer interpreted guidance from CDPH but were able to approve school waivers for reopening through a process through the Health and Human Services Agency.

“The schools in Tulare County are not our jurisdiction,” Shuklian said. “Contact those folks [local school boards] and our state representatives.”

That didn’t stop parents from asking the supervisors to intervene in the mask mandate during public comment at the July 13 meeting. Mirna Garcia said her once animated son is now socially awkward and withdrawn. She said the board may not make direct decisions for local schools but the schools do look to the county for guidance when it comes to COVID safety protocols.

“He’s just changed,” Garcia said. “So please make a change.”

Ken Horn, superintendent of Sequoia Union School District in Lemon Cove, said parents in his district packed the rural school’s gymnasium at a June 23 special meeting to voice their opposition to the state’s decision requiring all teachers, staff and students to wear masks on campus. He asked the board to consider how well the school waiver process worked and that schools can implement COVID plans safely on their own. Horn said his district allowed parents in the fall of 2020 to choose if their K-2 students should wear masks, a recommendation not a requirement from CDPH, and more than 90% of parents opted for no face masks.

“During the months of October through December 2020, we didn’t have one single K-2 student test positive nor any teachers or staff,” Horn said.

Horn urged the supervisors to follow El Dorado and Placer County boards of supervisors in passing resolutions supporting local school districts and parents’ rights to choose if their students wear masks. On July 8, the Placer County Board of Supervisors added the unagendized resolution to their July 8 meeting and then voted and approved the resolution of support for districts to decide the mask mandate for themselves. A month ago, the El Dorado Supervisors became the first county to approve a resolution to “assist in the return of governing power for school safety protocols to the School Districts themselves.” He said his board has called a special meeting for this Thursday, July 22, to determine if it will break from the mandate and wanted to know if the K-8 school district would have the support of the supervisors.

“Help us in any way you can,” Horn said.

 Seating the problem

Parents, district officials and the supervisors themselves agreed on one thing: the issue requires action from a higher authority. Tim Hire, county superintendent of schools, said he and other superintendents have been advocating for local control over COVID safety protocols since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Hire said many of his peers were advocating for local control at a recent meeting of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.

“I am happy to go on the record and say I am an advocate for us to make decisions locally,” Hire said.

CDPH said it will continue to assess conditions on an ongoing basis, and will determine no later than Nov. 1, 2021, whether to update mask requirements or recommendations. 

Hire said there are places in the state where cases are on the rise due to the delta variant of the virus and those areas have different needs than rural areas which may not be seeing increases. He said Los Angeles and Marin counties recently reinstating their masking mandates.

“But that was part of the crux of the argument as to why we should be in collaboration with our local public health officer have the ability to make decisions based on local conditions,” Hire said.

One possible solution would be to encourage students unsure of returning to the classroom into independent study through a distance learning model. The problem is most districts have little to no idea how many students would be interested in distance learning and it may not be enough. Kim Batty, spokesperson for Visalia Unified School District, said there are only 219 students in kindergarten through grade 6 and 75 in grades 7 through 12 enrolled in the district’s virtual learning program at Royal Oaks Elementary and VCIS. That amounts to less than a fraction of a percent of VUSD’s 32,000 students. Tulare Joint Union High School said it could be as high as 3%.

“We have school districts with small enough class sizes, that three feet of social distancing is insignificant,” Hire said. “But then we also know that we have schools and school districts in every county and around the state where 40 kids in the classroom, and there’s no way we could do any social distancing with that many kids in the classroom.”

Supervisor Vander Poel left parents at last week’s meeting with the understanding he stood behind school districts having control over masking, regardless of how the rest of the board voted.

“If a local district feels students should wear masks when they return in the fall, so be it, but let that school board make the final determination and not treat schools here in Tulare County like schools in San Francisco, which by the way didn’t even go back to school when they had the opportunity to do so because their fear of COVID outweighed the benefits for kids,” Vander Poel said.

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