By ROXANA KOPETMAN |
For the second time in two weeks, the president of the Placentia-Yorba Linda School Board abruptly shut down a meeting minutes after it began because people in the audience were not wearing face masks.
School staff and most board members walked out. But Trustees Leandra Blades and Shawn Youngblood remained and held an unofficial “town hall” with some 70 residents in the auditorium.
For more than two hours, those residents spoke with Blades and Youngblood about the mask mandate, saying there’s little uniformity on how it’s enforced in local schools. Blades claimed the official meeting was called off as a way to prevent her from bringing up the issue. Youngblood questioned whether the district should have accepted millions in federal COVID money and he suggested it be returned.
At one point, a woman in the post-meeting audience said, “There’s not a deadly virus anywhere in the ountry.” The crowd cheered and someone said, “Amen.”
In the United States, more than 858,000 people have died of COVID-19. In Orange County, 5,946 people have died of the virus. And in recent weeks, local schools have struggled to stay open as they battle skyrocketing absenteeism among students and teachers due to the surging omicron variant.
Wednesday night, the meeting kicked off with Board President Carrie Buck reading from a prepared statement that reminded the audience that the state Department of Public Health ordered masks indoors in public buildings through Feb. 15. She also specified that mesh masks do not meet that requirement, and offered free masks to anyone who wanted it. People who didn’t wish to wear a mask were told they could watch the meeting outside via a live stream.
Trustee Blades, pulling down a bandanna, attempted to speak. Buck stopped her: “You also need to have your mask on.”
“Well, I’m speaking now,” Blades said.
Responded Buck: “You have to wear it, no matter when you’re speaking.”
Blades said that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to President Biden, has spoken without a mask.
Buck told her: “In this building, we have to wear a mask.”
Turning to the audience, Buck said many were not wearing face coverings correctly. She then adjourned the meeting — two minutes and 39 seconds after it began. A similar scenario played out on Jan. 19, when Buck closed the meeting after four minutes and 33 seconds, also because of mask rules.
“This is illegal. You can’t just do that,” one person screamed out, as recorded in a video by one attendee and shared on Facebook.
Youngblood and others questioned whether parliamentary procedures were violated. One resident yelled about violation of law and said he had already complained to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for that department said they don’t comment on complaints submitted to the D.A.
Blades said she had a number of issues she planned to bring up at the meeting, including the idea of board members having a greater say in the hiring of principals. “Don’t you want to know what their values are? What their beliefs are?”
Blades, a retired police officer, became the target of a petition last year after it became known she was at the U.S. Capitol with friends on Jan. 6. She denied any involvement in the violence that took place that day.
In recent years, the Placentia-Yorba Linda School Board has attracted large crowds at many of its meetings, with debates raging over pandemic-related issues, ethnic studies and the college-level study of racism known as critical race theory.
Who’s on what side is not hard to figure out. First, there’s the mask – a clear give-away of who is following safety protocols. Many residents also wear either green shirts, in support of ethnic studies and face masks, or red shirts, against mandatory vaccines, face masks and ethnic studies.
The tone of the meetings “can be pretty toxic, and a little scary, because they’re yelling,” said Samiya Hai, a Yorba Linda parent who has attended several meetings. “It’s not like you can go and be comfortable,” she said.
“There’s a guy who comes with underwear on his face.”
Another parent, Brian Sarno, said meetings tend to be dominated by what he called “a loud minority.” Parents who are more cautious of the virus are more likely to stay away, he noted.
At Wednesday night’s unofficial gathering with Blades and Youngblood, many of the people who stuck around wore red shirts. Few wore face coverings.
One woman wearing a red shirt emblazoned with “I’ll pull them” – meaning she will take her kids out of public school – complained to Youngblood and Blades that there’s little consistency about mask enforcement. Blades agreed. She pointed to a large poster of a group of students inside a high school gym showing that many did not have face masks on.
Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School Board trustee Leandra Blades, left, holds up a poster-sized photo after the scheduled board meeting was canceled in Placentia on Wednesday, January 19, 2022. Blades claims the photo shows un-masked students at a Yorba Linda High basketball game on the same day a student at the school was kicked out not wearing a mask. Trustee Shawn Youngblood, right, and Leandra Blades remained at the dais to have a ‘town hall’ with parents against the mask mandate after board president Carrie Buck canceled the meeting minutes after it started. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Another topic that emerged is whether the district could have avoided face mask mandates had it not accepted several million dollars in federal COVID relief funds. Youngblood suggested the board could consider returning the money.
Alyssa Griffiths, the district spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail late Thursday that the Placentia-Yorba Linda district still would have to abide by any guidelines, including a mask mandate, set by the California Department of Public Health and the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Kindra Britt, spokeswoman for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, also said schools have to follow state face mask rules regardless of whether they accept federal relief dollars.
Another point that has been repeatedly brought up, and which led to a protest outside Travis Ranch School in Yorba Linda earlier this month, revolved around mesh masks.
Dr. Clayton Chau, who heads the Orange County Health Care Agency, said in an e-mail Thursday that there’s no specific guidance from the state regarding mesh masks. But fabric masks “that are not tightly woven or with inadequate layers provide little protection,” he wrote. The Centers for Disease Control and the state’s health department note that it’s important to wear masks that fit well; N95 masks offer the best protection.