Supervisor Don Wagner and acting county health officer Clayton Chau issued a statement Wednesday that put some distance between themselves and a controversial recommendation from the Orange County Board of Education that students should return to school, in class, without masks, during the pandemic.
While Wagner and Chau wrote that they “applaud the efforts” of the Board of Education to “bring children back to school,” they also pointedly noted that they did not “write, edit or review” the report.
Since Monday, when the county Board of Education issued its symbolic recommendation to 27 local school districts it doesn’t oversee, the report has drawn national media attention and often angry criticism.
Among other things, the report suggests that students would be better served to attend school without masks, and that social distancing isn’t needed.
On Wednesday, Orange County reported 911 new cases of coronavirus and 22 deaths.
Wagner and Chau were among several public officials and health experts whose names were attached to a report approved by most of the five-member elected panel that comprises the Board of Education.
The report from the Board of Education differs from recommendations made by the agency it’s connected to, the Orange County Department of Education. The Department of Education recommends that schools should follow public health officials, and that any in-class education should include social distancing and masks for students and staff.
Such differences between the Board of Education and the Department of Education aren’t uncommon. The two entities have distinct roles. And the board and leader of the Department of Education, O.C. Superintendent of Schools, Al Mijares, have been embroiled in a power struggle for more than a year.
A lawsuit in which the Board of Education is challenging state law to have more direct oversight of the Department of Education’s budget is on hold because of coronavirus and remains unsettled. And on Monday, the day the Board approved its report, Mijares issued a statement noting that the Board’s recommendations were not binding.
Wagner, who represents the Third District, said in a brief interview Wednesday that the county isn’t connected to the Board of Education or its report.
“I want to make sure there isn’t any misunderstanding about the county’s role,” Wagner said. “Ultimately, it’s the school districts’ decision. As a county supervisor, it’s not my call.”
Still, Wagner said he would prefer to see kids in school and not learning online.
“I’m not convinced, personally, that online education is sufficient. And I hope they find a way to get back to in-person teaching as soon and as safely as possible.”
The Board of Education vote carries no real weight with Orange County’s 27 school districts, which, barring state orders, have the power to set their own re-opening plans. In fact, the day after the vote, Santa Ana Unified, the second biggest district in Orange County, announced it’s going strictly online when schools reopen in the fall due to the rise in COVID-19 cases.
The broad outline for the report issued Monday, July 13, was set during a June 24 forum convened by the Board of Education, board members said. Wagner, Chau and nine others were invited to participate as forum panelists.
The June forum’s official agenda included a set of “first principles,” which stated that requiring children to wear masks at school “is not only impossible to implement but not based on science and could be potentially harmful.”
Another panelist from the June meeting, Irvine pediatrician Steven Abelowitz, also is distancing himself from the report. He wrote this week on Facebook that his comments “were either misunderstood or misrepresented.”
“My team and I are in communication to get this rectified,” Abelowitz wrote.
Abelowitz added that he supports the American Academy of Pediatrics guidance for reopening schools. The Academy recommends students be physically present in school as much as possible because it outweighs educational and social risks students would otherwise face with strict online learning.
Wagner, who was interviewed Wednesday on CNN, said the June forum was skewed to one point of view, and that he would have liked to hear all sides represented.
Board chair Mari Barke said Wednesday that the 36-page report was written by the forum’s moderator, Will Swaim, who heads the California Policy Center, a Libertarian public policy think tank, and edited by long-time Board of Education member Ken Williams.
Barke added that she’s been surprised by the reaction — which included a letter expressing concern from Orange County’s congressional delegation — and attention from national media.
“I hope people understand that the only reason we did this was not to ruffle feathers or upset Congress people, but to just provide our constituents and the public with some information that they can do what they want with it.”
When she suggested holding the June 24 forum, Barke said she wanted to provide “a service and additional information.”
The forum was convened, she said, because Superintendent Mijares did not allow her to attend meetings he held with educators to draft the school reopening guidelines recently issued by the Orange County Department of Education.
“If he hadn’t of had his meetings behind closed doors, I probably wouldn’t have thought of (holding the forum,)” Barke said.
Mijares has previously said these were working meetings not open to the public, including members of the Orange County Board of Education.
Last Monday’s meeting drew an unprecedented number of virtual attendees while board members met in person in Costa Mesa. Online, it was watched via Zoom and YouTube by as many as 7,461 people, according to Ian Hanigan, spokesman for the Orange County Department of Education. The board received an unusually high number of emails and comments, about 4,000, before and after the meeting.