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By Collin Breaux

The Orange County Board of Education voted, 4-0, to approve taking legal action against Gov. Gavin Newsom over K-12 students being required to wear masks indoors for the 2021-22 school year. The OCBE approved the lawsuit during a special meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3.

Continuing mask requirements for schoolchildren has been a controversial topic with some parents in Orange County, who are calling for an end to such mandates. The mask requirements are set by the California Department of Public Health.

“The governor and his executive agencies, by an emergency fiat that violates state constitutional and statutory law, threaten to extend and compound the harm to California’s children previously caused by prior school closures and unwarranted masking requirements,” OCBE legal representative Gregory Rolen said in a press release after the meeting’s closed session.

Policy decisions by the OCBE—which is based in Costa Mesa and whose responsibilities include approving the annual Orange County Department of Education’s budget and serving as Orange County’s appeal board for the adjudication of expulsion appeals and interdistrict attendance appeals—are generally not mandates that must be followed by individual school districts, which have authority to set their own local policies. Recommendations by the OCBE last year that students return to campus without masks or social distancing attracted national attention and some scorn.

During a recent Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting held before the OCBE meeting, Trustee Lisa Davis also mentioned her desire to sue the state over mask requirements. Other trustees did not address Davis’ statement. Davis introduced a resolution requesting masks be optional for students, which was approved by other trustees.

OCBE Trustees Mari Barke, Ken Williams, Tim Shaw, and Lisa Sparks approved going ahead with legal action against the state. Trustee Rebecca Gomez—who has often spoken against the board’s anti-health guideline leanings—left the meeting prior to the vote.

The OCBE sued Newsom last year over then-current campus closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Campuses have since reopened for in-person learning, including in CUSD.

“Above all, the board recognizes the importance of keeping our children safe at school and free from policies and practices that will cause them harm,” Rolen said. “When necessary, the board will fight to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the county’s kids at school.”

While some parents and students have denounced masks as inhibiting kids’ health and ability to communicate, public health experts and other parents have continued to emphasize their use in halting the spread of COVID-19. Mask requirements were largely lifted for fully vaccinated people in California on June 15, though the requirements have returned in other parts of the country (including Northern California) as case numbers again rise with the Delta variant.

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