By Mary-Justine Lanyon
After staging a rally outside Rim of the World High School to protest the state mandate that requires all students and staff members to wear masks indoors, the parents – some accompanied by their children – attended the Aug. 19 school board meeting in the high school library. None of them wore masks.
School board President Jordana Ridland announced that seven people had filed the necessary request to speak during Public Testimony. Before that took place, the board had asked Dr. Sohil Sud, a pediatrician with the California Department of Public Health, to provide guidance on safety measures for the classroom.
Speaking via Zoom, Dr. Sud said that “we know more than we did in March 2020. We shut down schools because of our experience with other viruses.”
He pointed to the pandemic costs of closing schools: substantial educational losses and the worsening of emotional health for students, loss of work or job stability and emotional distress for parents.
“When schools are closed,” he said, “it’s not just the kids who are impacted – it’s the parents, too.”
And there are real harms associated with school closures. Dr. Sud noted there were more suicide attempts among teenagers this past year when schools were closed.
Children, Dr. Sud pointed out, quoting public health science, get COVID-19 less often than adults. Those who do contract it most often get it from an infected household adult. That makes sense, he said, as they spend time together unmasked.
“Schools can operate safely with key safety measures in place,” Dr. Sud said. “When there is masking in place, schools are safer than the community. They are a good place to be.”
He asked why we care since children don’t get the virus very much. “The landscape is changing dramatically. The number of children infected in California is increasing, the number of children hospitalized is increasing, the number of children in intensive care is increasing. At the same time, the total number of children impacted remains low, especially when compared to unvaccinated adults.”
The Delta variant is more contagious, Dr. Sud noted, but is transmitted the same way as other variants. “It’s worrisome but we have key tools. The vaccines are very effective at preventing severe illness and spread. It is important to be fully vaccinated.”
Looking at the 2021-2022 school year, Dr. Sud said two things are of utmost importance: To make sure the virus doesn’t spread and cause more disease in children and their families and to make sure the students remain in school so they don’t suffer the same consequences as last year.
Masks, he said, are effective, safe and recommended by national scientific experts. They allow for fewer missed days of school. “When masks are not worn, that’s when the virus spreads in schools.”
Dr. Sud added that, 18 months into extensive mask wearing, “I have yet to see a child walk through my hospital doors with adverse effects from wearing a mask. I am the first to acknowledge they aren’t always comfortable. They are not my favorite thing in the world but they save lives.”
He recommends a layered approach: vaccines for those over 12, masks, ventilation, hand hygiene, staying home when sick and testing.
“We are committed to revisiting the mask mandate as time goes on,” Dr. Sud said, adding they will probably reconsider it on Nov. 1. “We want to make sure California schools remain open and safe.”
Before calling the first speaker to the podium, Ridland said that “as a board, we believe it is important for all voices to be heard but we cannot engage with the speakers. We must maintain civility and respect. We know everyone present is focused on what is best for students and staff.” She added that school districts are required to comply with the mask mandate.
“We are demanding this elected school board do what is right for our children,” said Ginnie Kiely. “Apparently a meeting has taken place behind closed doors to decide that we cannot choose what is right for our children. This decision should be placed in the hands of parents. I am disappointed in this elected board.
“Forcing kids to wear a mask all day is a health hazard. It is not accomplishing anything at all. Why is it you can make a decision when you have not heard from the community? You are a board of education, not a medical board. We do not want to mask our children. All we are asking for is a simple choice.”
Kiely’s remarks were followed by cheering and applause from the other parents in the audience, some of whom held up signs saying, “Let me breathe” and “Freedom of choice.”
Ridland then read an email submitted by Cathleen Coombs who wrote that “we are fortunate to live in a time when technology leads to a vaccine. When two people are wearing masks, transmission is greatly reduced. No one wants to return to virtual schooling.
“Wearing masks is by order of the governor. I wear a mask not only for my own health but the health of others. You have my full support in enforcing the order of the governor.”
Amy Dahlberg Wisman said that “we know kids are not at great risk. They don’t spread it. School districts across the nation stayed fully open without masks. Masks can pose great risks for the pediatric population.
“Masks pose greater risks to children than COVID. Please look at the studies – no study compares masks to maskless data. Give parents the choice to medically exempt their children from wearing masks. Other school districts have submitted resolutions to offer choice. Masks are not the answer. The risk is far greater than the reward.”
“We all share one common goal,” said George Whitty. “To keep schools open for in-person classes. The best way is to require everyone to wear a mask.” He shared statistics about the number of hospitalizations and the efficacy of masks, adding that incidents of flu dropped 98 percent last year when most people wore masks.
“I fully support the board and administration in taking the common-sense step of requiring masks,” Whitty concluded.
Tammy Hopkins, a speech therapist with the district, said she was voicing her support “for choice to decide if my child should be masked at school. We must accept the unpleasant reality that risk is everywhere. I am disturbed our children are continuing to be masked when it is not supported by science of logic.”
“If you want to look ridiculous in your face diapers,” said Chris Freeman, “that is your choice. This school district is not a hospital. You’re not doctors. This is child abuse. There are zero studies that prove masks prevent the spread of this virus. Those masks you’re wearing do nothing. It’s like putting up a chain-link fence to keep out mosquitoes.”
The last speaker, Michelle O’Connor, told the board that “masks are potentially harmful. They are ineffective and can do harm. The size of the virus particle is much too small to be stopped by the mask. This is an experimental trial on these children. The CDC found no reduction in viral spread by wearing face masks.
“It is illegal to mandate without consent. You have been informed and have been put on notice to stop illegally requiring students to wear masks.”
Attorney William Diedrich clarified the mask mandate for the board and the parents. “As of today, we have guidance from the California Department of Health mandating that all students wear masks while indoors and adults wear mask when indoors with children.” He added that the county Department of Health has adopted this guidance.
The exceptions, Diedrich noted, are for children under 2, those with medical exemptions and those who are hard of hearing or need to read lips.
Diedrich added that, in the case of districts that willfully ignore the governor’s order, “there is the potential for criminal prosecution.” In addition, because it is a state mandate and the district receives state funds, there is a concern about funding.
The trustees thanked the parents for expressing their opinions on both sides. “Everyone who has spoken has been heard,” said Trustee Jordan Zarate.
Superintendent Michelle Murphy added, “Thank you for sharing your passion.”