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Orange County Education Board Member On Her Vote For Schools To Reopen Without Masks


California's two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, both said yesterday that students will not be headed back to school campuses this fall. Instead, classes will be online. But school board leaders in Orange County, which sits between LA and San Diego, have decided the opposite. Last night, the Orange County Board of Education voted to approve recommendations that school campuses reopen in the fall without masks or social distancing. Lisa Sparks is one of the board members who voted in favor of those guidelines, and she joins me now.

Welcome, Lisa.

LISA SPARKS: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: And we should note that your recommendations are not binding recommendations, but they are what your board is advising. They say that masks may be harmful to students and that social distancing causes, quote, "child harm." How so?

SPARKS: I think that the data is not completely conclusive. And that is the main point of all of this COVID crisis is we just don't have enough data. We're in kind of a Wild West situation here where we really don't know the impact long term of any of the decisions that are being made. And so we're really the voice of the parents in a lot of ways. The parents are reaching out to us and wanting us to show leadership so that parents have choices for reopening.

MCCAMMON: Of course, there's a lot that's still being learned about this pandemic. This is something none of us in our lifetimes have ever faced. But there is data out there and there are scientists and experts who have expertise in this and who are looking at the data. And the CDC has created the guidelines it's created. Do you disagree with the CDC scientists?

SPARKS: No, absolutely not. I am a big proponent of the CDC. My area of research itself is in the area of health communication and public health. So I absolutely support many of the recommendations. The data indicate for young children that we need to find creative ways for reopening the schools in a very responsible, safe way.

MCCAMMON: You talk about being creative, but, I mean, there is a limit to how creative you can be when you're talking about a pandemic and you're talking about a virus that is killing people every day in this country. As you noted, your expertise is in health messaging. Is there a risk that endorsing school reopening without masks and without social distancing is sending the wrong message?

SPARKS: We're not endorsing that students return to school without masks or without social distancing. We're saying that that may - that 100% compliance may be unrealistic.

MCCAMMON: You say this to me, but your white paper, which is part of the policy you supported, says, quote, "requiring children to wear masks during school is not only difficult - if not impossible to implement - but not based on science. It may even be harmful and is therefore not recommended." Do you think wearing masks is not based on science, however difficult it may be? Is it not scientific?

SPARKS: That line was - that line was from the experts on our panel. And we had pediatric experts on our panel. We had policymakers on our panel. So the white paper was reflecting what the expert panelists purported in their - in - during the forum.

MCCAMMON: But that line is just not accurate, at least if you, as you say you do, endorse the CDC scientists' guidelines. It's just not true. I mean...

SPARKS: That's why we included in the - that's why we included in the appendices all those citations to support the aspects of the white paper and to show the evidence from the scientific research out there and - but at the same time, the forum - the purpose of the forum was to bring the expert testimony into that - you know, in summarizing what they had said.

MCCAMMON: Orange County is logging an average of nearly 1,000 new coronavirus cases every day. If the schools in your area go back to normal and there is a major outbreak, if the death toll starts to climb, what should happen?

SPARKS: Yeah. It's my understanding from the research that the kids age 25 and below, certainly 18 below, in Orange County, there are zero - I think there's zero deaths. There are very, very low deaths with young children under the age of - I believe it's 25. So I think that's another big, important component here to the decision-making about reopening K-12 schools.

MCCAMMON: Yes. But, again, what about the people who are not under 25, all of the people in the community that live with those children and have contact with them on a regular basis?

SPARKS: Absolutely. And those are decisions that families are going to need to make based on their own family situation. But to have that parent choice, that family choice, is going to be really important.

MCCAMMON: Lisa Sparks is a member of the Orange County Board of Education and dean of the School of Communications at Chapman University.

Thanks so much for joining us.

SPARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.