By Collin Breaux | Email: cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com | Twitter: @collin_breaux

A decision on Monday, July 13 by the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) to recommend returning to the classroom without social distancing measures and mask requirements stirred controversy and caused some confusion.

Meanwhile, the school reopening plan for Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) is expected to be finalized during a Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, July 15.

During a special meeting on Monday, July 13, the OCBE approved a white paper outlining their own recommendations on school reopenings, which includes support for no masks or social distancing. The recommendations are not mandates that can be enforced, and individual school districts are the ones that decide local school policy.

The OCBE approved the white paper, which is defined as an authoritative report or guide, by a 4-1 vote. Trustees Ken Williams, Tim Shaw, Lisa Sparks, and Mari Barke voted yes. Trustee Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez voted no.

Gomez took issue with aspects of the white paper and called it flawed, saying there were no citations on claims, including on social distancing harming children.“No one’s forcing anybody,” Shaw said. “If you feel very strongly you don’t want your kid attending school, there will likely be an online option.”

Some public speakers at the meeting spoke in support of the white paper’s recommendations, saying schools can be a safe haven from abusive homes and that masks inhibit emotional understanding. Others were against the recommendations, saying OCBE didn’t care about student safety and that some teachers were concerned about returning to school.

Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares on Monday issued a statement in response to the OCBE meeting and school reopening recommendations, saying the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) and his office have worked to develop separate reopening guidelines that are in alignment with the California Department of Public Health, stressing the importance of social distancing and face coverings.

“The board majority’s recommendations are not binding,” Mijares said. “Locally elected school boards and superintendents will approve and implement plans specific to their districts based on the needs of their schools and communities. OCDE is working to support districts in that effort, and we remain 100 percent committed to following and sharing the guidance of the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency.”

OCDE and OCBE have separate responsibilities. OCBE’s responsibilities include approving the annual budget and receiving the annual audit of OCDE and serving as Orange County’s appeal board for the adjudication of expulsion appeals and interdistrict attendance appeals, according to OCBE’s website.

As for the CUSD meeting scheduled for Wednesday, July 15, the recommended options for what education will look like for the upcoming school year is a hybrid model for grades K-5. Students will have the option of spending the day on campus, half of it being academic instruction with teachers and the other half in activities such as art or music with another teacher or staff member. K-5 students can also spend half the day at home with a parent or another adult.

The option for students in grades 6-12 is to do half their instruction on campus and the other half online. Students in all grades have the option of 100% online learning if families so choose.

CUSD campuses closed in March as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. A form of online education called distance learning has been in place since campus closures, though an agenda report on the proposed reopening plan said it “has been clear from feedback received that the distance learning experience for students and families has been inconsistent across the District.”

The agenda report also discussed what a typical day could be like for students in the fall. CUSD will follow health and safety guidelines set out by the California Department of Public Health.

“Students are wearing their facial coverings as they enter their school campus in an orderly fashion,” the report said. “They enter from multiple entrances to provide appropriate distancing, and they go to their assigned spot in their class line, which is clearly marked with ‘distancing dots’ on the ground to ensure that students are spaced apart and are facing forward.”

Signage on campus will also remind students to distance, wash hands, and wear face coverings.

In a CUSD survey, 50% of certificated staff believe both students and staff should follow state and local guidelines when it comes to masks. More than 60% believe both staff and students should be subject to at least daily temperature checks, and approximately 23% have reservations or are very uncomfortable about returning to work even if health and safety guidelines are followed. Of that group, almost 72% cite being part of a high-risk group or caring for someone that is high risk as the concern.

Also on the agenda is a temporary policy on high school graduation requirements. Staff is considering modifying policy by reducing the number of elective credits graduating high school students would need to receive or accumulate.

Specifically, 15 elective credits and 5 credits of health would no longer be required for students in order to graduate from high school, the agenda report said.

Some members of the community have taken issue with the possible reduction in health education, saying health education is important for students. Lauren Gallegos, who works at the Wellness & Prevention Center in San Clemente and is a parent of two teens in CUSD, said the health curriculum is a valuable resource for helping teens learn how to live healthy lives.

“It would be unfortunate to lose this important tool from our prevention toolbox should this class be dropped as a graduation requirement,” Gallegos said. “We understand that these are difficult decisions for our school district to make but would advocate for keeping this requirement.”

Marci Mednick, co-founder of the Wellness & Prevention Center, said health class is one of the few remaining places where teens learn how to care for their mind and body.

“From a public health perspective, good mental and physical health must be a planned outcome—not luck,” Mednick said. “School health education programs can reduce health risk behaviors such as poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, drug and alcohol use, as well as behaviors that take a toll on one’s mental health.”

A communications representative for CUSD had not responded to requests for comment as of press time. Visit capousd.org for more information on the July 15 meeting.

Santa Ana Unified School District has announced they will start the school year entirely via distance learning, and Anaheim Union High School District leaders also reportedly are encouraging a completely distance learning-based curriculum to start their 2020-21 academic year.

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