O.C. Board of Education to sue Gov. Newsom over K-12 school mask mandate

O.C. Board of Education to sue Gov. Newsom over K-12 school
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The Orange County Board of Education — which last year unsuccessfully sued Gov. Gavin Newsom to reopen schools for in-person instruction — has voted to challenge him again over a state mandate requiring K-12 students to wear masks in classrooms and other indoor campus facilities, saying the rule is a burden on children.

In a 4-0 closed-session vote, the board approved a legal challenge that targets the governor’s emergency rule-making powers, which includes the recent school mask mandate issued as California schools are fully reopening for in-person learning against a troubling coronavirus uptick fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant.

Reading from an approved press release, the board’s counsel called the governor’s and executive agencies’ use of emergency decrees a violation of “constitutional and statutory law,” calling the latest student mask rule a burden that “compounds the harm to California’s children previously caused by prior school closures and unwarranted masking requirements,”

The board did not present any data as evidence of any adverse effects of masking on children, or acknowledge public health studies that have shown masking reduces the spread of the virus. Orange County officials disputed that there is a scientific basis for masking schoolchildren.

“Putting aside for the moment, the lack of sound, medical or scientific basis of the governor’s requirement to mask school children — who in general are neither at risk from COVID-19 nor likely to spread it — and putting aside the lack of any thoughtful well-considered transparent balancing of substantial harms of forced masking of juveniles against the reported benefits, the governor and the state level administrative agencies do not have the power to continue the state of emergency indefinitely,” the counsel continued.

While children have largely escaped COVID-19 infections, it’s still possible for a child to contract and spread the virus. And while cases of a multisystem inflammatory syndrome — known as MIS-C — that has infected some children exposed to the coronavirus are rare, they can be serious.

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Board members Mari Barke, Tim Shaw, Lisa Sparks and Ken Williams were present for the vote. Board member Beckie Gomez had departed prior to the vote.

The California Dept. of Public Health called the lawsuit a “distraction” from COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

“California’s COVID-19 prevention strategies are the best way to fully open our schools while protecting students and staff, and the state’s guidance fully aligns with the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics,” CDPH told The Times. “Our top priority and singular focus remains ensuring that the return to in-person learning for all students is successful this fall. These lawsuits are a disappointing distraction from a common goal – getting kids back into schools safely and limiting the spread of COVID-19.”

Last August, the board sued Newsom to reopen schools that had been closed due to COVID-19. A petition went to the state Supreme Court asking it to review the case, but was ultimately denied.

The board is an advisory body does not have the authority to implement rules over the county’s 27 school districts.

Orange County has long pushed against COVID-19 restrictions throughout the pandemic, and residents’ opposition to face covering rules contributed to the implementation of the statewide mandate last June.

In June 2020, the county’s health officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned after residents vehemently challenged her mask mandate, leading to at least one death threat.

Dr. Clayton Chau, then the county’s acting public health officer, dropped Quick’s mandate since no statewide order existed, a decision that was believed to be a factor in the county’s spike in cases. But shortly afterward, Chau said that he spoke directly to state officials urging them to issue a statewide order.

“I personally was the one who talked to the state about having it as a mandate,” Chau said last August. “If you remember correctly, after I pulled back the order … a week later, the governor came down with a mandate.”

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