Parents, advocates challenge mask mandates at Riverside County schools

(FOX 11)

The academic year begins for most Riverside County K-12 schools over the next two weeks, and all school districts are returning to full-time, in-person instruction -- but with coronavirus-related mask mandates in place, which some residents find objectionable.

The Palm Springs Unified School District will begin classes on Aug. 4, with a safety plan that closely adheres to California Department of Public Health requirements for in-person classes.

"It looks like we will be able to return to our traditional classroom settings and schedules," PSUSD Superintendent Mike Swize said in a statement earlier this month. "Current guidance will require that we continue the use of face coverings indoors in all classrooms and buildings."

RELATED: New CDC mask guidelines: Vaccinated should mask indoors, as should K-12 schools

Swize expressed relief that the school district had managed to navigate the "uncharted waters of distance learning" during the public health lockdowns near the end of 2019-20, as well as most of 2020-21, saying the experiences were "the most challenging times" he could recall as a lifetime educator.

The Riverside Unified School District, where classes begin Aug. 9, emphasized in its recently adopted ``COVID-19 Safe Return Plan'' the need for "in-person instruction and continuity of services to students and families."

RUSD said the "surest path to safe and full in-person instruction" relies on mitigation strategies that incorporate the use of masks, which students and staff will be required to wear in classes, on buses and other shared settings.

However, outdoor masking will be optional.

Get your top stories delivered daily! Sign up for FOX 11’s Fast 5 newsletter. And, get breaking news alerts in the FOX 11 News app. Download for iOS or Android.

"Students may bring personal face coverings or neck gaiters, following the dress code policy," according to a school district statement.

"Schools should offer alternative educational opportunities for students who are excluded from campus because they will not wear a face covering.''

RUSD schools will also continue to promote physical distancing.

"Lunch areas will be marked with locations to sit that are physically distanced," the district said. "The bus will be loaded from back to front and unloaded from front to back."

The Temecula Valley Unified School District, where classes start on Aug. 11, issued a statement saying it was "committed to not implementing any measures beyond what is required of us" by the CDPH and Riverside County Department of Public Health.

"All students, staff and visitors will need to wear masks while indoors," TVUSD said. "We will continue to meet the required COVID-19 mitigation measures to provide the safest possible in-school experience."

In formulating its mandates for schools, the CDPH on July 12 cited U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, tailored to the "California context."

The CDC's COVID Data Tracker shows that less than 10% of all known COVID cases recorded nationwide have involved children 17 years old and younger.

"Eating healthy, getting exercise and being social -- that's what kids need," said Annette Hoegner, a volunteer ambassador for Children's Health Defense-California, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded by attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "All they're doing is hurting kids physically and emotionally by making them wear these masks. Mandating them is unethical."

Some school districts are maintaining COVID "dashboards" to provide current data on infections impacting students and staff. At the Corona-Norco Unified School District, where classes get underway on Aug. 10, the dashboard, which went live in July 2020, shows there has been a total 360 COVID-19 cases district-wide.

However, only 98 of those, or 27%, have involved students. The rest are teachers, administrators and support personnel, figures show.

Like surrounding districts, CNUSD has quarantine measures based on CDPH guidelines, which call for isolation from seven to 14 days, depending on a person's vaccination status, symptoms and last known exposure.

Hoegner said Children's Health Defense-California has taken a stand against masks, whether they're used in isolation or in public, because the downsides outweigh any potential gains.

"They're not FDA-approved. It literally says on boxes for disposable masks that they do not prevent viruses," she told City News Service. "Masks can have damaging effects on children. They limit their oxygen intake, force CO2 back into their lungs, possibly creating infection and dental problems. We know of cases where they've caused impetigo. So many things are happening that are just not OK."

She said she could not perceive a valid argument for continuing to enforce mask mandates in classrooms.

"If masks aren't effective and virus particles can fit through them, then what's the point?" she said.

According to the CDPH's guidance page, "masks are one of the most effective safety mitigation measures (for) source control of both (COVID-19) aerosols and droplets."

Hoegner and other parents have appeared before school boards and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to urge an end to mask mandates and express opposition to prospective vaccination requirements.

Riverside-area resident Eric Neff directly addressed board Chair Karen Spiegel during Tuesday' meeting, asking, "Can you guys put forth a motion to stop masks in schools?"

Spiegel said she did not intend to support such a resolution.

"We're not going to do one. It's going to take an elected body, your school board," she said. "That is their job -- to govern the schools. We have not interfered in the governance of our schools. If we did that, they're going to want to interfere with the governance of the county. We have no say on masks or guidance."

Tune in to FOX 11 Los Angeles for the latest Southern California news.