With the new school year less than a month away, COVID-19 mask protocols and an ethnic studies course were contentious topics during Tuesday night’s Desert Sands Unified School District meeting that included a few heated moments — and saw one woman ushered out of the boardroom.
With a small group of people holding up signs throughout the meeting with phrases like “Let them breathe” and “Unmask our kids,” the school board listened as public commenters urged the board to not require students to wear masks when they return to school on Aug. 18. Masking children was a form of child abuse, said one commenter to a loud round of applause.
At one point, a woman — who was among the group holding signs and who was part of a small rally outside the district offices before the meeting — interrupted a presentation and walked to the front of the room. She said, “Let them breathe,” and told the board members to take their masks while holding a sign that said, “Defund teachers’ unions.”
She was told to return to her seat and refused, then was corralled by two security guards and ushered toward the back of the room. She was allowed to stay but chose to leave the premises.
Had she stayed, she would have learned that on the issue of mask-wearing, she and the board were not totally at odds.
While the board said it would follow California Department of Public Health guidelines — which right now state that masks are mandatory for all students and teachers — it did vote unanimously to send a resolution to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking him to update those guidelines so the district can return to operating the way it did before the pandemic — which would include no masks or social distancing.
“The Board of Trustees of the Desert Sands Unified School District requests that the State of California work diligently to provide consistent, timely and science-based guidance that will expedite the return to normalcy in the public schools of Riverside County,” read the resolution written by superintendent Scott Bailey who was on vacation and not in attendance at the board meeting. “The Board of Trustees of the Desert Sands Unified School District hereby gives voice to the desires expressed by many families and community members served by the District by requesting that the State focus on the goal of returning students to school in a safe manner that allows for all students to be provided their right to an in-person public education.”
Mask protocols and guidance for schools have been hotly debated in recent weeks nationwide as many states, including California, have seen COVID-19 case rates rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month recommended masking in schools for only unvaccinated people over age 2. But this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new COVID-19 guidelines for schools, urging that everyone over age 2 wear masks this fall, even those who have been vaccinated.
The other passion topic of the night was a new ethnic studies course that will begin this year as part of an upcoming mandate from the state.
California plans to make ethnic studies a state graduation requirement by the 2023-24 school year, so the district has decided to offer a one-semester provisional ethnic studies class this year.
The description of the elective Introduction to Ethnic Studies course, available only to high schoolers, says its aim is to “explore topics considering ethnicity, race, culture while creating interest in further exploring the social sciences and preparing students by developing reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The course promotes health and wellbeing, social-emotional competencies, and exposure to academic texts to better prepare students for college, career, and participation in civic life.”
It includes sections on civic engagement and Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latinx, and African American studies.
Several public commenters equated the class to the hot-button issue of Critical Race Theory.
“I think what you’re doing with CRT is morally repugnant,” said Anne Rock during public comments. “We as parents did not agree to co-parent with you. We want teachers to do what they’re hired to do and that’s teach the academics. We don’t want to know about what you think or what your politics are. All you’re doing is taking the country back 50 years. Trying to change our history because you don’t like it, that’s nonsense. The more you talk about race and the color of people’s skin, that means you’re the racist.”
At leastseven more commenters echoed that sentiment, each with strong and pointed words. Four board members chose not to comment, but board President Donald Griffith spoke up.
“We’re not going to teach Critical Race Theory, we’re going to teach ethnic studies. I’m trying to explain it to you,” Griffith said as the group scoffed, interrupted, got up and started to walk out.
“You’re the elitist and we’re just the stupid parents,” one woman said as she walked out the door.
A miffed Griffith continued: “We’re going to teach the courses that we are mandated to teach the best way we know how to teach them. You ask me a couple questions and I try to give you a couple answers and all you do is shout me down. So it doesn’t really seem like you want to hear what I have to say. You’re rude to people who don’t think like you. You want something from someone and all you do is condescend and sit in the back of the room and throw potshots and that’s not how to get anything accomplished and that’s why you won’t get anything accomplished.”
By the time he finished his statement, the dissenters had all left.
Later in the meeting, the provisional, one-semester ethnic studies class was approved unanimously.
The night started with a rally outside the district offices that included at least 10 people holding signs “Let them breathe” and “Stop CRT, no hate education” and “Recall Newsom.”
The rally was organized by a group called Unite 911, which describes itself as a conservative volunteer-driven movement based in the Coachella Valley whose mission is to “unite all Americans, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, income, or age, to help save our country from the Marxist Socialist Communist agenda.”
A flyer promoting the gathering listed six focal points for the group: “open schools completely”; “unmask our children”; “remove all COVID restrictions”; “stop sexual indoctrination”; “eliminate Critical Race Theory”; and “end the union stronghold.”
The next scheduled board meeting is Aug. 17, the day before school officially starts on Wednesday, Aug. 18.
Shad Powers covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach him at email@example.com.
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