During the last school year, when and how to reopen K-12 classrooms to students became a thorny issue that involved not only questions of health and education, but also politics. Now, as the beginning of the new school year approaches, the issue of children and teens wearing masks in classrooms has emerged as a renewed conflict.
Newly-formed parent advocacy group Kids First Kern has taken on the cause. It is asking parents and other community members to push back against a recent state mandate that requires all students to wear masks when they're inside.
"We have continually had to fight (Gov. Gavin) Newsom, California and the California Department of Public Health, even our own school districts to allow children these inalienable rights of being happy and being educated," said Shannon Boren, a founder of Kids First Kern. "Now, once again, California has refused to follow science and the CDC by announcing that they will force all children and all adults, yes even teachers who are vaccinated, to wear masks to school this fall."
Boren was speaking to a group gathered Wednesday night in a Sheraton conference room for the second public meeting of Kids First Kern, which formed in June in an event organized by Russell Johnson, the owner of Common Sense Consulting and a founder of the group.
The agenda included the upcoming ethnic studies curriculum at the Kern High School District, the effort to recall Newsom as well as an appearance by Steve Sanders, chief of staff to Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow, to discuss how parents and community members can get involved in schools. But the group's biggest call to action of the night concerned the state's masking mandate.
On July 12, the California Department of Public Health released guidance mandating that school districts require masking indoors. Initially, the department said schools must send students home who were not wearing a mask and offer them an alternative educational opportunity, but then hours later it reneged its statement and left it to local district to decide how to implement the mandate.
Kids First Kern is asking its members to push back against that mandate under the banner of local control. It asks its members to request a "Mask Choice Resolution" on the agenda of local school board meetings from a new statewide advocacy group called Let Them Breathe.
The resolution itself wouldn't give districts the right to allow students to show up to school maskless. Many local school districts have emphasized that school boards and administrators have a duty to follow state mandates.
Rather, the Mask Choice Resolution asks school boards to lobby the state to drop its mandatory requirement not just for masks but for quarantines, asymptomatic testing and other requirements that it believes are "ineffective, unnecessary and harmful to the health and education of a child."
Its goal is to "allow school districts to consult with city and county health departments to determine the need for safety protocols based on local conditions." It advocates for parental choice for both masking and vaccinating their children.
Sharon McKeeman, the founder of Let Them Breathe, is a part of the team of Parent Association, the North County San Diego-based group that sued California in February over its reopening plans, which it deemed "arbitrary." Let Them Breathe has retained the same law firm and is raising money to sue the state again over its mask mandate.
Boren said she submitted the Mask Choice Resolution to the Kern High School District and Norris School District where her children attend. She pointed to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, which just passed a similar resolution.
"If Tulare County can do it, come on Kern County, we can do this," Boren said.
That question of risk is the same one that has dogged the debate over reopening schools. Those pushing for removing mask requirements in schools point to studies that show that children tend to fare better with COVID-19 than adults.
Dr. Hemmal Kothary, chief medical officer for Dignity Health’s Central California market hospitals, affirmed that view in a phone interview.
"If there’s anything good about COVID, it affects (children) a lot less and they have a lot milder cases," he said.
In Kern County, 13,834 residents age 17 years and younger were diagnosed with COVID-19, or about 12 percent of the population. That same demographic accounts for zero deaths. Age tends to correlate with experiencing more severe symptoms, hospitalization and death. But Kothary said that doesn't mean all children will be able to stay out of the hospital, ICU or will even survive.
In Kern County, there have been 20 cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a condition that may be associated with COVID-19, according to Michelle Corson, a spokeswoman for Kern County Public Health Services Department.
"There will always be outliers," Boren said. "But our children should not be the ones at the lowest risk with the highest punishments and the highest restrictions."
Some parents who are opposed to a mask mandate argue masks get in the way of the full constitutionally protected educational experience, such as picking up on social cues and learning to pronounce letters.
"It inhibits their sense of self and takes away their identity," said Mary Little, a trustee on the Kern County Board of Education. "They are not able to learn correctly. How is a child supposed to learn phonics when they can't see the teacher pronouncing the words?"
Little also said that masks are "ineffective and useless" and "spread diseases."
But Kothary, the doctor, said the cloth and surgical masks that students generally wear tend to not fatigue students and cause problems cited in some studies, unlike an N95 mask. That makes cloth and surgical masks less effective in preventing COVID, but he said there are benefits to wearing masks for children, who tend to touch their faces less when wearing them.
"I think people are making a bigger deal than it is," he said of mask requirements. "I hated it when we first started wearing it. But I don’t think they will ever go away completely."
Kothary said he believes people should have the right to do what they want to do, but it is also important to think about how their own actions will affect their neighbors. The immune systems of children have generally proven to be very resilient during COVID-19, but more research needs to be done on whether children are bringing the illness to vulnerable family members who have underlying health conditions.
The Let Them Breathe website has its own list of citations that they say show the health risks of COVID-19 are minimal to students and communities.
"My philosophy would just be keep sending your kid to school and keep doing it (without a mask) until they say they don't have to wear them," Little said.