LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — As K-12 students prepare to go back to school, local school boards are grappling with implementing the state's new mask mandate, and it could get contentious.
With the California Dept. of Public Health requiring students to wear masks in classrooms, the president of an Orange County school board is advocating for local control over the student mask requirement.
At a recent Los Alamitos Unified School Board meeting, board president Marlys Davidson said there could be long-term impacts to children and students wearing masks in classrooms.
"I can't imagine our little ones learning facial cues, learning how to respond to people with nonverbal communication with a mask on," Davidson said during Tuesday's school board meeting. "I think there's going to be long-term damage when a kindergartener or first grader doesn't see their friends smile… For six hours, a lot of our students are going to have masks over their faces."
Davidson then urged parents to write letters to the California Dept. of Public Health, the agency mandating students to wear masks in indoor classroom settings.
"There's been such an uproar about critical race theory," Davidson said about another current divisive issue happening at schools. "I think people need to stand up and say, 'Why can't [masks for students] be local control?' Because which is the greater threat to the children of our district COVID or denial of interpersonal relations?"
Davidson's statement comes as the state's health agency continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and deal with a rising number of cases from the more highly contagious delta variant among unvaccinated residents.
California reopened its economy on June 15 due to its high vaccination rate and loosened several masks requirements, social distancing, and public health guidelines for residents in the state. Masks would be optional for those vaccinated. Those unvaccinated would be required to continue wearing masks in indoor settings. At least 60% of residents in the state have received one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, the LA Times reported.
But, a little more than a month later, several local county health officials are again asking residents regardless of vaccination status to mask up indoors.
And just as a new spike emerges, local schools are preparing students to come back on campus.
Earlier this month, the CDPH released guidance that requires students to wear masks inside classrooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
But unlike last school year, where many schools closed and went to remote learning or a hybrid schedule, students are going back to campus and in-person learning this year.
"Masks are one of the most effective and simplest safety mitigation layers to prevent in-school transmission of COVID-19 infections and to support full-time in-person instruction in K-12 schools," the state health department said.
The mandate also said students would not need to be six feet apart, makes masks wearing outdoors optional, and students with medical exemptions will have to wear different face covers.
Additionally, the health department has said local school districts "must develop and implement local protocols to enforce the mask requirements."
All schools — private, charter and public — must follow the state's guidance for their students to come back for in-person instruction for the 2021-22 school year.
The mask enforcement, along with other guidance issues, is causing "a lot of confusion for superintendents across the state," Los Alamitos Superintendent Andrew Pulver told the board.
"There are some superintendents that were saying, 'If they are going to ask us to enforce it, then I'm not sure exactly what that means,'" he said, adding a scenario on what happens if a student refuses to wear a mask. Does the school allow that student to continue? What are the school's options?
Other board members chimed in with similar questions: do basketball and volleyball players need to wear masks since gyms are considered indoor venues? What is the new guidance for students in band and choir?
"There's still ambiguity. I don't have clarity on that," Pulver said.
Pulver said Orange County superintendents met with Dr. Clayton Chau, the Orange County Health Care Agency director, and "expressed our frustrations."
"Parents across the state think it's up to us, to all of you as [school] board members to decide what to do if a student doesn't wear a mask," Pulver said. "I feel like we're getting a mixed message."
It's also unclear what kind of penalties school districts face if they don't comply with the state's new guidance.
The California Dept. of Public Health did not answer Spectrum News' specific questions about the new masks mandate.
In an email, a public health official said schools must develop and implement local protocols to provide a face covering to students who inadvertently fail to bring a face covering to school to prevent unnecessary exclusions.
"Additionally, schools should offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering," the statement said.
The guidance also confirms that schools can continue to enforce masking as they did last year, the spokesperson said.
The Orange County Health Care Agency did not return a Spectrum News email for comment as of press time.
A spokesman for the Santa Ana Unified School District said they would be complying with the state's new mask mandate when students return to in-person instruction, beginning Aug. 16.
"Masks will be required for all staff and students during all indoor activities at all schools," said Fermin Leal, a spokesman for the Santa Ana Unified School District, to Spectrum News. "Medical exemptions will be required for those not wearing masks. For outdoor activities, masks will be voluntary. Currently, our classrooms are set up with plexiglass barriers at student desks and at other common spaces. Those will remain for now."
Leal said Santa Ana Unified, which has 54 schools and more than 58,000 students, supports the state's student masks requirement.
Santa Ana, Leal said, is among the hardest-hit communities during the pandemic. According to the Orange County Health Care Agency, Santa Ana has had more than 45,200 coronavirus cases, the most in Orange County.
"So, we want to ensure our district takes all the necessary precautions to help keep our community and schools safe," Leal said. "We will work to make necessary accommodations with our families who choose for their children not to wear masks in schools. This could include directing their children to our online learning platforms, which will remain in effect going forward. Other options could include independent study."
Countywide, the agency has reported more than 260,200 confirmed cases and 5,100 deaths as of Thursday.
Meanwhile, Pulver and the rest of the Los Alamitos School Board, who oversees nine schools and more than 9,600 students, are developing a plan to comply with the state's mandate.
Still, Pulver lamented to the board that the CDPH should have considered the "science of the whole child" before releasing the new mask mandate.
Studies are conflicted on whether children with COVID, especially those under 12, contribute to its spread.
"Early studies suggested that children do not contribute much to the spread of coronavirus," a Harvard study said. "But more recent studies raise concerns that children could be capable of spreading the infection."
It is unclear how susceptible children are to catching the new delta variant. COVID-19 vaccines are available for children ages 12 and older.
Doctors say that with the delta variant spreading, children who can get vaccinated should and that parents take precautions around their surroundings.
The first district to petition last year to reopen their school campuses, Los Alamitos Unified, kept a running dashboard of COVID-19 cases at their schools and reported only six confirmed cases. Of those confirmed cases, two were from adult staff, two from high schoolers in the same family, and two elementary school children.
However, a VoiceofOC report in December found that Los Alamitos High School had at least 37 confirmed cases. The surge in cases and those in close contact prompted the district to shut down the high school temporarily and forced students to go back to remote learning.
It's unclear why the district's dashboard removed the reported 37 cases at its high school. Pulver did not return a Spectrum News email message.
From mid-August 2020 to mid-July 2021, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported countywide, 3,800 students, teachers and other school staff had COVID-19. Nearly 3,300 cases came from elementary and high schools in Orange County.
In total, COVID cases in schools amounted to about 1.4% of all cases in Orange County.
"We need to take a look at the impact of the whole child," Pulver said, adding the importance of children learning non-verbal communication, social, and other emotional support. Those cues are hard to discern when children wear face masks, he said.
Last year, Pulver said, science had concerns that children and young adolescents could spread COVID-19 to other family members in the household.
"I think that argument is gone because everyone has access to a vaccination," Pulver said.
Pulver suggested that the CDPH should make masks optional "so people can make their own personal decisions" and only mandating it when an outbreak occurs.
For now, in a mass email to parents a day after the meeting, Pulver said Los Alamitos Unified would continue to review the new guidance and seek further clarification in some areas.
Under the state mandate, school districts cannot "implement policies that are less restrictive than the mandates required by CDPH which are enforceable under the California Emergency Services Act."
"We still have questions," Pulver told the board. "We're still seeking clarifications."
Davidson, the board president, reiterated to Spectrum News the importance of having each school district decide what's best for their students.
"Just because there is a spike in COVID cases 100 miles away doesn't mean our kids have to mask up," Davidson said in a follow-up phone interview. Davidson said Los Alamitos, Rossmoor and Seal Beach — the areas that Los Alamitos unified serves — has a low number of cases.
"Of course, if there's a spike in our schools, we're going to do whatever it takes to protect our students," she said.
Davidson admits she's not a medical expert or epidemiologist, but she's been an educator for 30 years. Like many parents, she's concerned about the delta variant. However, she believes strongly there could be long-term negative effects of students wearing masks.
"If we continue to put masks on [students], we possibly deny them developmental stages that are critical to the person they are going to become," she said.
But at the end of the day, the board can't make the student mask decision independently.
"I want parents to understand that at this point in time, it doesn't matter what decisions we make," she said. "All of the decisions are being made in Sacramento. These are blanket policies without regard to local decision making.
"That's why I'm advocating for more local control," she added. "That's what we need. We need to be able to respond to our families, our students, and our community from a local level. Masks should be optional."
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story reported the number of confirmed COVID cases at Los Alamitos High School based on the district dashboard. However, other news reports have found the number of confirmed cases was actually much higher than what was listed on the district’s dashboard. The story has been updated. (July 23, 2021)