In order for the Oakdale Joint Unified School District to comply with new mandates, the school board hosted a special meeting on Monday night, Aug. 2 to go over their opening plan and pass the Independent Study Board Policy Recommendation.
The trouble is, as the board and public recognized, that the state is giving confusing signals on how mask mandates should be handled. As of July 28, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) indicated that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear masks on public transit, in emergency shelters and cooling centers, and indoors in K-12 schools and childcare, in addition to a few more specific listings.
The ‘mask on’ directive came just a week before the first day of classes for the new school year in the district, Wednesday, Aug. 4; and stirred up plenty of emotions.
OJUSD’s opening plan acknowledges these mandates and is as follows: in-school learning will return so that all students can return to class all day, every day, social distancing will no longer be required, teachers can return to traditional teaching methods, and masks are required inside when students are present (with possible exemptions for medical issues that are confirmed by a doctor).
After the board finished reviewing this plan, board member Diane Gilbert commented: “I’m not in favor of bringing our students back in masks, I’m just not.”
This was received with overwhelming approval from the audience and other board members agreed. This is also where the meeting took a turn from informative to public dialogue.
While there may have been a majority that did not want to require masks for children, new District Superintendent Dr. Dave Kline explained that the mask mandate “has been vetted with our attorneys … we cannot waiver on this because it will jeopardize the district’s liability and that is just not something we’re willing to do.”
A concern the board noted was that if they don’t enforce the mask mandate, there could be a student who is infected with COVID because of another non-masked student and the family could sue.
This was met with multiple parents and community members saying that they’d stand behind the district if the district would fight for kids’ right to not wear masks with comments like: “tell us what you need to offset whoever it is that’s coming down on you, we’ll gladly write the damn check” and “the moment we allow and begin enforcing this abusive mandate is the moment that we have failed as a district” and “we’re going to muzzle up children ... and it’s wrong.”
Others came up to the podium – the meeting was offered both in person and online – to share personal stories of their children that have been affected especially by these mandates. One retired teacher noted that her grandson, who is hard of hearing, loses most of his communication when masks are in place, explaining that “masking is extremely detrimental to the hearing and speech impaired who depend on vocal projection, facial expression, lip reading, and body language for all communicating and learning.”
Even more, another shared their daughter’s experience: “P.E. for a child in a mask with tachycardia and a pacemaker is disgusting.”
The current mandate requires masks for inside sports, but not outside activities.
Board members showed similar concerns and sympathy for parents and tried to assuage worries, explaining that there could be mask breaks and special circumstances for mask-wearing, while also holding that it’s not simple to change these rules, however much they may want to.
“If you think you’re frustrated, so are we, we get it, we understand it ... the only thing we can do is keep pushing, pushing on the boundaries, pushing on the state,” board member Larry Betschart said. “We are trying.”
Board member Mike House added: “I agree, as a parent I want to make those decisions for my child and I would wish each of you can. But we’re responsible for the district as a whole ... if we get sued and lose 10 million dollars, where does that come from? It comes from the kids’ education.”
During public comment, a few community members tried to address insurance claims and the difference between state recommendations and what is law. Dr. Kline did explain that “the information has been interpreted as a requirement or a mandate to the school districts” and another board member said that they got a specific email from their insurance saying they would not be covered in the event that they disregarded mask mandates and someone sued.
Community members then started listing other schools in the area like Clovis and Hughson that have adopted mask choice, and asked OJUSD to follow their lead.
Board president Barbara Shook wrapped up public comment noting that these opening plans have “not been a fun task ... this is not a voting situation, this is simply an educational piece, trying to inform everyone on where we are at this point.”
While many parents left after public comment on the opening plans, the board explained later on that, prior to the board meeting, they’d already drafted a letter that would be going out to the California Department of Health. This letter recognized that, after a summer of returning to somewhat-normalcy, asking students to wear a mask feels like a step backward and that they respectfully request that they (the state) reconsider the mask guideline.
In the end the board members did decide to create an action point for their Aug. 9 meeting to address these issues. In the meantime, they planned to contact schools that had helped them get students back in the classroom last school year to see if they had any guidance for adopting mask choice.
Before ending the meeting, the board turned its attention to changes in Independent Study (IS) plans. The complete plan is available online, but Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Gillian Wegener explained the main points: there will be opportunities for synchronous learning for younger students; older students will use Edgenuity and have a weekly hour of synchronous teaching with an IS teacher. Many complimented the new plan and noted that it was “leaps and bounds above what was offered last year.”
As the meeting ended, Dr. Kline attested to community members that coming in and fighting for what they believed in was valid: “You’re a representative of our community and have every right to do this.”
House summarized the evening: “It was loud, it was passionate, but it was civil.”
For a full report of the board’s requirements concerning opening plans, independent study board policy, and the letter that was signed for the California Department of Health, visit https://www.ojusd.org/boardreports. To watch the special Aug. 2 board meeting, visit OJUSD’s YouTube page.