Yesterday evening Orange County education leaders voted to recommend reopening schools without the mandatory use of masks or increased social distancing – although they do suggest there should be daily temperature checks, frequent handwashing and the use of hand sanitizer, alongside the nightly disinfection of classrooms
Jocelyn Gecker has been reporting for Associated Press from California on the school reopening debate. As she puts it, on one side are parents saying, let kids be kids. They object to masks and social distancing in classrooms arguing both could hurt their children’s well-being.
On the other side are parents and teachers who call for safeguards that would have been unimaginable before the coronavirus pandemic: part-time school, face coverings for all or a fully online curriculum.
“Don’t tell me my kid has to wear a mask,” Kim Sherman, a mother of three in the central California city of Clovis who describes herself as very conservative and very pro-Trump, told Gecker. “I don’t need to be dictated to to tell me how best to raise my kids.”
Some parents have threatened to pull their children and the funding they provide if masks are required. Hillary Salway, a mother of three in Orange County, California, is part of a vocal minority calling for schools to fully open with “normal social interaction.”
If the district requires masks for her son’s kindergarten class, she says, “I don’t know if my son will be starting his educational career in the public school system this fall.”
She wants him to feel free to hug his teacher and friends and can’t imagine sending him to a school where he’ll get reprimanded for sharing a toy. She started a petition last month urging her district to “keep facial expressions visually available” and helped organize a protest of over 100 people outside the district office, with signs saying, “No to masks, Yes to recess,” and “Let me breathe.”
Supporters argue that face coverings are ineffective, give a false sense of security, and are potentially detrimental.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks may help prevent infected people from spreading the virus to others and urged students and teachers to wear them whenever feasible. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered Californians to wear them in public.
Brooke Aston Harper, a liberal parent who attended a particularly spirited Orange County education board meeting recently, said it was “horrifying” that speakers were “imposing their small worldview on all of us.”
“I’m not looking for a fight, I just want us to take precautions,” said Harper, whose children are 4 and 6.
She also started a petition, calling on schools to follow state guidelines that include masks for teachers and students, constant social distancing on campuses and other measures.
“For each school board, the question is going to be: What does our community want, and who is the loudest?” she said.
“I will be wearing a mask, a face shield, possibly gloves, and I’m even considering getting some type of body covering to wear,” says Stacey Pugh, a fifth-grade teacher in suburban Houston. She hopes her Aldine district will mandate masks for students. “Come the fall, we’re going to be the front-line workers,” said Pugh.
Many small, rural communities argue they shouldn’t have to comply with the same rules as big cities, where infection rates are higher.
Craig Guensler, superintendent of a small district in California’s mostly rural Yuba County, says officials will try to follow state mandates. They have spent $25,000 on what he calls “spit guards, for lack of a better term” – clear Plexiglas dividers to separate desks at Wheatland Unified School District’s four schools.
Eighty-five percent of parents said in a survey they want their kids in school full time. Officials will space out desks as much as possible but still expect up to 28 in each classroom, Guensler said. Many parents are adamant their children not wear masks, and he suspects they will find loopholes if California requires them.
“Our expectation is we’re going to get pummelled with pediatricians writing notes, saying, ‘My child can’t wear a mask,’” he said.