Irvine School District Defies OC Board, Will Require Students to Wear Face Masks

July 16, 2020 Updated: July 16, 2020

IRVINE, Calif.—The Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) Board of Education voted unanimously on July 14 to require that students wear face coverings when schools reopen, contradicting recommendations made by the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) a day earlier.

“We are following guidelines that have been passed down by health expert agencies,” Superintendent Terry Walker said during the meeting.

The IUSD guidelines align with those approved by the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency, but counter the OCBE’s recommendations, which are not binding on the county’s 28 school districts.

The OCBE voted 4 to 1 on July 13 to approve guidelines which recommend not enforcing the use of masks and social distancing by students, saying school-age children represent the lowest risk for COVID-19. The OCBE guidelines emphasize the importance of in-person learning, but school districts throughout the county are differing in their approaches to reopening.

The IUSD board recommended a hybrid model that includes both virtual and in-person learning, along with strict safety protocols while children are at school. The guidelines mandate that staff, students, and visitors must wear face coverings at all times, unless maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet or more, or when drinking, eating, or participating in recess. Students with medical issues would be exempt.

The Irvine school board emphasized the importance of a physical classroom setting and safety guidelines based on “evidence, not politics,” but also acknowledged the necessity for ongoing adaptability.

“The landscape is going to continue to change, and we’re going to have to adapt quickly,” said Cassie Parham, an IUSD assistant superintendent. “We need to create models that serve our students and respond to the needs of our community, and support the safety of all students and staff—and that’s no small undertaking.”

The OCBE released its “Recommendations for the Safe and Effective Reopening of Orange County Schools” in a July 13 white paper that included input from a number of medical experts.

“Requiring children to wear masks during school is not only difficult—if not impossible to implement—but not based on science. It may even be harmful and is therefore not recommended,” the paper stated.

The OCBE called remote learning an “utter failure” that’s frustrating for parents, students, and teachers. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also pushed for the physical reopening of schools nationwide, stating that the benefits of an in-person classroom setting on physical and mental health greatly overshadow the risk of COVID-19.

Many county school districts plan to feature virtual learning, despite the OCBE’s concerns. The Santa Ana Unified School District has committed entirely to distance education to start the upcoming school year; two districts in Fullerton and the Tustin Unified School District will offer students a choice of either hybrid or total virtual learning. Other districts, including those in Anaheim, are expected to decide soon.

“For the hybrid model, you’re going to be receiving most of your instruction with the teacher,” Walker said. On distance learning days, the IUSD program offers plentiful resources and independent activities that have been curated, he added.

The hybrid model also makes it “much more likely for those students who are choosing a fully online path to dip their toes in the water of coming back to schools,” Walker said.

The IUSD program also emphasizes thorough cleaning and disinfecting protocols. The custodial staff is being trained in COVID-19 cleaning protocols, according to the guidelines, and students will be taught how to safely move through classrooms and hallways. Nearly 100,000 masks are already available, and more have been ordered.

The IUSD educates over 36,000 students in grades K-12, and includes 24 elementary schools, six middle schools, and six high schools. Schools in the district are scheduled to reopen on Aug. 20.