VUSD asks state to remove mask mandate

One trustee asks for her name to be removed from the letter citing concerns over a rise in child hospitalizations due to COVID-19

Visalia Unified became the latest school to submit a letter to state officials asking to make indoor masking a recommendation and not a mandate.

The board approved the letter at its Aug. 10 meeting amidst another round of parent comments calling for the school board to have local control of decision making when it comes to masking and other COVID-19 safety protocols. At previous Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) meetings, parents have described wearing masks for a full-day of instruction as psychologically damning, face diapers, and increasing the likelihood of immoral behavior. At its most recent meeting, one mother described the mandate as oppressive. Rachel Lewis threatened to pull her child out of the district and encouraged others to do the same.

“I am done allowing this board, the teachers union and the government to violate and harm my child,” Lewis said. “You are predators. You are not protecting children, you are conceding, complying and perpetrating this maliciousness.”

The letter didn’t go so far as to defy the mask mandate, saying the district understands its legal obligation to follow state guidance, but rather asks state officials to “reconsider” its “one-size-fits-all mandate” and “consider local conditions.”

“To this end, VUSD Board formally requests the State Public Health Officer and CDPH make the mask mandate a recommendation so that VUSD and other school districts in California can work with our local county health officials to take measured, calculated steps to operate schools during the pandemic based on local conditions,” the letter states.

Joseph Beaton, hospital laboratory scientist, said it took the district far too long to draft and approve the letter with school starting last week. He admitted the delta variant has increased new cases and test positivity rates but not the death rate. As of press time the state was reporting 11 new deaths for a seven-day average of 0.1 deaths per 100,000 people, three times higher than Tulare County. However, Tulare County’s 18.9 cases per 100,000 people is the highest since Feb. 21, 2021, according to Tulare County HHSA. The county’s available ICU beds has dropped to 36.4% and ventilators to 57.3%.

“Cases without deaths cannot cause supplication of school children, ‘’ the father of a kindergarten student said. “State officials believe Californians will put up with anything. I demand from experts a better explanation than, ‘because I said so.’”

The letter was addressed to Dr. Tomas Aragon, California State Public Health Officer; Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of California Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA); and Dr. Naomi Bardach, Safe Schools for All Team Lead with the California Department of Public Health. Gamoian requested Gov. Gavin Newsom’s name be taken from the list of those copied to addressing his office directly. The letter was also CC’d to local California legislators, Association of California School Administrators, California School Board Association, State Board of Education, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, Tulare County Superintendent Tim Hire, Tulare County Board of Supervisors and Tulare County HHSA.

“We trust you to do your job to evaluate the scientific studies and make recommendations for the betterment of public health,” the letter reads. “Trust us as educators to do our job to consider the ramifications of these recommendations on our employees and students’ health and education.”

The letter was approved 6-1 with Megan Casebeer Soleno being the only trustee to vote against it. Soleno cited an Aug. 5 report released by Valley Children’s Hospital showing the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and emergency department visits for children. From June 1 to Aug. 1, Valley Children’s hospitalizations for COVID-19 cases doubled and ED visits were six times higher, going from 13 to 81. Soleno also noted the state’s first pediatric death from COVID-19 was reported at Valley Children’s a year ago. She said the rise at Valley Children’s is more concerning than other hospitals because most children cannot be vaccinated and the hospital is the only children’s hospital between Sacramento and Los Angeles.

“Not a single public health agency has sent out conflicting information,” Soleno said. “All unilaterally recommend the use of masks indoors. I cannot look at that amount of experts and deem myself, or this board, as more qualified then them.”

Trustee Walta Gamoian challenged Soleno saying the data was confusing and conflicting. She cited the Centers for Disease Control’s website which lists the percentage of death among all minors at 0%. The total number of deaths among children since the pandemic began is 457, or about 0.0009% of all COVID-related deaths.

“I don’t think this merits masking up our children,” Gamoian said.

Gamoian did honor Soleno’s request to remove her name from the letter.

While trustees John Crabtree and Joy Naylor did not comment before approving the letter, they did make statements when the board requested the letter at its July 27 meeting. Naylor said she wanted masking to be optional and Crabtree called the mandate “shameful” for what it was doing to students psychologically.

“I want parents to know I too stand with them,” Crabtree said. “This mask thing has gone on far too long and the damage we are doing to our students is far beyond what most people realize.”

Trustee Jacqui Gaebe tried to end the meeting on a positive note.

“We know there are people on both sides of the masking issue,” Gaebe said. We have staff that has worked hard to start this year. We had students excited to return, full day, without social distancing. My kids were excited they got to play on the playground.”

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