In a 3-2 vote, the Coronado Unified School District board voted against joining a lawsuit to gain local control in school reopening with specific regards to mask guidelines. The “surprise” Saturday school board meeting, as it was called by some, was held at district offices on August 7th at noon. The notice was shared 24 hours before the meeting via the district website and by district email.
According to CUSD Superintendent Karl Mueller, the meeting was held at the specific request of the trustees to deliberate the merits of challenging the State of California to gain local control of reopening guidelines. The lawsuit, which is being filed pro bono by the law firm Tyler & Bursch out of Murietta on behalf of the Orange County Office of Education, will be filed on Monday, necessitating the Saturday meeting.
About a dozen community members sat in attendance, including an attorney for the law firm filing the lawsuits. Attorney Nada Higuera said that “restoring the voices of the constituents” is what’s at stake.
“We are civil rights attorneys dedicated to restoring local control,” said Higuera in public comments. “The governor has dedicated all decision-making power to unelected public health officials … This lawsuit would ask the Governor to go back to the way the democratic process normally is, through legislators, through elected officials who are accountable to their constituents.”
Four members of the community gave public comment, including Jennifer Landry, President of the Association of Coronado Teachers. She shared that many teachers are dismayed that the district would consider fighting the state mandate on mask-wearing in public schools. The commentator expressed concern that the board would go against the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines.
“If the mandate, backed by scientists, is there to protect us, why doesn’t the board care?” she said, referring to a comment submitted by a fellow teacher.
She also noted teacher concerns on the challenge of getting substitute teachers to fill in positions, even when mask-wearing guidelines were in place.
“If masks don’t need to be worn, where are we going to find subs, if we couldn’t even find any when masks were required?” she asked, quoting a fellow teacher.
CUSD mother Laura Eastlick shared worries over the “indefinite” and “abusive” mask-wearing of minors for six-plus hours a day at school.
“We agreed to stay home to flatten the curve so hospitals would not be overwhelmed,” said Eastlick. “What we didn’t agree to, was the indefinite mask wearing, that covers our children’s beautiful smiles … It’s time for the adults in this community to give back, to give back the students’ freedom of choice … and let them celebrate in ways that you were all able to as teens.”
She argued that the school board members were elected to advocate for the CUSD children, regardless of state mandates, and urged them to support the ideology of the Let Them Breathe Campaign, stand against the government, and gain local control back for families.
Tori Calisch, a Coronado mom of a second grader and a fourth grader, said that she strongly supported that all students and staff wear masks upon school reopening. According to Calisch, her fourth-grade daughter Erica shared that most elementary school children are not yet old enough to get the coronavirus vaccine.
“I don’t want to go back online,” said Calisch, quoting her daughter. “It was hard on myself, my friends, and my family. It’s OK to wear masks, we’ve been doing it for the last year. What’s not fine is going back into lockdown. What’s not fine is us going back on Zoom. What’s not fine is kids getting sick.”
After public comments, the vote was taken in closed session, despite the protests of Trustee Whitney Antrim, who argued that the pending litigation was already out in the open and there was no need for a closed session.
According to board president Lee Pontes, the motion was made by Trustee Stacy Keszei and seconded by Trustee Esther Valdes-Clayton, “to move forward in alignment with the Orange County Office of Education’s petition to pursue litigation against the State of California.” The motion failed by a vote of two in favor (Keszei, Valdes-Clayton) to three against (Pontes, Helen Anderson-Cruz, Antrim).
Board President Lee Pontes shared his thoughts on his vote against the motion. He said he was hoping to hear a path to gaining local control when it comes to masking or not masking students in CUSD schools. Although the petition included that, he felt it was too broad in scope.
“My interpretation of local control does not mean I want to do away with masking across the board,” said Pontes. “I would like the ability to be more discrete in determining when masks make sense and when they don’t. For instance, with the Covid infection rate increase due to the Delta variant and the lack of a vaccine for our youngest students, I would strongly endorse masking indoors at both our elementary schools.”
Pontes said he’d like to be able to discuss with staff, parents, and students at the high school if there might be a less onerous path that would be viable in a range of situations.
“Right now, such a discussion would be moot,” said Pontes. “So, I intend to continue to seek a path that permits ‘local control,’ but in that manner.”
The next school board meeting takes on Thursday, August 19 at 4pm at district offices.