• On Monday, the Orange County Board of Education voted to approve guidelines to reopen schools for in-person learning in the fall – without requiring masks or social-distancing measures.
  • Individual school districts within the county can decide whether to heed the board’s recommendations, but local parents told us the decision has created a rift in the affluent community.
  • Business Insider observed local Facebook group members calling each other “covidiot” and “maskholes” while researching this article.
  • Orange County is one of 30 California counties where the reopening of businesses has been rolled back because of rising COVID-19 cases, and cases are rising faster per capita there than the previous epicenter of Los Angeles.
  • Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Business Insider that the lack of a national plan for reopening schools had divided communities across the US.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Early Monday evening, about 40 masked people were gathered in Costa Mesa, California. They yelled chants like “wear your mask” and carried signs with phrases like “Science has no political agenda” and “No masks, no distance, no schools.”

The protest was held an hour before a meeting in which the Orange County Board of Education was to vote on how to safely reopen schools in the county, which sits between Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south.

The vote was 4-1 in favor of guidelines that were out of step with most other reopening plans to date. Not only did the board vote to approve in-person school reopening, but it recommended against requiring masks or social-distancing measures.

The report supporting the board’s decision said the idea that children should wear face masks to prevent the virus from spreading was “fallacious and lacks science and data to support” it.

Another portion of the report reads, "Among our greatest responsibilities as adults is our responsibility to model courage and persistence in the face of uncertainty and fear, which is what many families are feeling with the mixed messages and confusion surrounding reopening of schools in the COVID-19 era."

Beckie Gomez, the one board member who voted against the guidelines, was also the only board member to wear a face covering at the meeting.

Gomez told the Los Angeles Times that the board's report did not cite sources for several of its assertions. "There are some flaws in this report," she said. "If you say something, you should be able to back it up."

jeff barke

Foto: Dr. Jeff Barke spoke with CBS Los Angeles at the board meeting on Monday. Source: CBS Los Angeles

While the board's recommendation is not binding, and individual school districts in the county can decide whether to follow its guidelines - some have already said they won't - the decision has attracted nationwide attention for its bold language.

Business Insider talked to 10 local parents who described how the school-reopening debate had divided them.

One was Jeff Barke, a Newport Beach physician who spoke at the Monday meeting and gave an interview with CBS Los Angeles as a parent. He also happens to be the husband of Mari Barke, the board's vice president.

He told Business Insider in a phone interview that his comments at the meeting focused on charter-school funding, but he did advocate school reopenings in the CBS Los Angeles interview.

He also told Business Insider that requiring kids to use face coverings was impractical and harmful.

"It interferes with learning," he said. "It interferes with their psychological development. It causes anxiety, causes learning disorders, depression."

Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country - but in 2020 the wealthy are divided

Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in both California and the country.

Set along the coast of Southern California, it is home to about 3.2 million people with a median household income of $85,398 in 2018 - about 35% higher than the national average. It's also one of the roughly 30 counties that California is monitoring closely for rising numbers of reported coronavirus infections.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled back the reopening of businesses in these counties, and he is expected to speak about school reopening plans at a Friday press conference, which may be in response to the decisions out of Orange County. Cases per capita are now rising faster in Orange County than in Los Angeles County, which has been the state's coronavirus epicenter to date.

Despite the state's current status as a progressive hotbed, California's politics were conservative for much of the 20th century, and less than 10 years ago, Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Republican governor who won reelection.

Orange County has long been known not only for Disneyland and its beachfront mansions, but also as one of the strongholds of the Republican Party. It was the onetime home of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Yet the county voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and then turned almost completely blue in the 2018 midterm elections, an inconceivable outcome just a decade ago.

And now Orange County is setting up to reopen its schools.

newport beach orange county

Foto: Homes in Orange County's Newport Beach. Source: Getty Images/Fernando Espinosa / EyeEm

Affluent counties typically come well-funded public schools in America. As a May 2020 paper in the journal Educational Researcher found, the districts that land in the top 1% of funding distribution nationally are markedly wealthy, suburban, and white. And Orange County K-12 public schools rank among the top 20 in the nation.

The furor the OC typifies other Trump-era trends: Affluent, educated voters, many of whom live in suburbs, are fleeing the Republican Party, including in Orange County. And like masks themselves, school safety is getting politicized, too.

Chris Brude, a teacher at the Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach who is the father of a sixth grader who goes to school in Irvine, told Business Insider that reopening schools had become a "divisive issue" in the community.

"It seems like schools have kind of become the new masks," Brude told Business Insider. "A lot of the Republican leaders who were skeptical about masks are saying, 'Well, we'll wear a mask,' and Trump wore a mask a few days ago. So now it seems like the hot-button issue has become schools."

Schools are becoming politicized in the way masks have been

Throughout the pandemic, Orange County has seen anti-mask protests at events held by pro-mask groups. Protests to demand reopening have been met by socially distant counterprotests.

The board of education's controversial vote this week followed a more sparsely attended special meeting on June 24, which invited 11 health and policy panelists to speak about how to safely reopen schools. Most of the panelists argued against wearing masks and social-distancing measures, prompting outcry from some local parents who felt the board had "cherry-picked" the participants, per local news reports.

Five of the panelists had previously signed a letter to Trump calling the coronavirus shutdown "a mass casualty incident," the Orange County Register reported. Two of those particants, as well as another speaker at the meeting, have referred to the pandemic in their bios as the "Wuhan Virus" or the "Wuhan Coronavirus," per the Register, some of the problematic terms that White House officials have used to describe the coronavirus.

The board claimed its final report was written with the help of these panelists. But since the board approved the guidelines, at least two of the panelists have said they weren't involved in writing them, Voice of OC reported. And at least one of them, Dr. Steven Abelowitz, a former pediatric chair at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, asked to have his name be removed from the report.

Some parents push back after the education board vote

The day after the June panel, some Orange County parents started organizing to push back against the comments they'd heard the night before.

Brooke Aston Harper, who identified herself to Business Insider as a Placentia resident and mother of two boys, ages 4 and 6, started a petition on Change.org demanding that the board follow the state's guidelines for reopening schools. These include mandatory face coverings, social-distancing measures, and daily temperature checks.

Shortly after, she said, she started a Facebook group called Safe School Reopening OC to encourage parents and teachers to pressure their school districts to abide by the state's reopening guidelines rather than the board's.

Harper said things changed last week after both Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos publicly urged schools to reopen despite guidance to the contrary from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Wednesday, Trump threatened to cut off federal funding to schools that didn't reopen in the fall. And DeVos said on Sunday that it should be "the rule" for students to return to schools in the fall.

"That was when people really started to pay attention to the conversation as a whole," Harper said of Trump's directives, "and that's when it came to light to the broader public, to those who don't pay attention to local politics, that the board of education had had this panel and written these pieces."

On Friday, Harper said, she posted on Facebook asking for 75 more people to sign her petition on school safety guidelines, so it could reach 1,000 signatures. By the time of this story's publication, a week later, more than 61,000 people had signed.

An issue that has become intertwined with politics and social class

The debate over school reopenings in Orange County has also been playing out on Facebook, where residents and parents lob around the term "covidiot" and "maskholes" in local groups, which Business Insider observed while researching this article.

Rhonda Anne Harris, who has a son in the Orange Unified School District, told Business Insider that she'd been seeing a lot of arguments between parents in local Facebook groups. In one group, she said, she saw an Orange County teacher refer to the virus as a "bogus Chinese cold."

Michele Petersen Jones, who has a son entering eighth grade in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, told Business Insider "we won't know for years the damage that this isolation and fearmongering has done to our kids."

Both politics and income levels have played a part in the disputes between parents in Orange County, some of the parents said.

Robyn Baker, an Irvine mother of a third-grade boy and a daughter in preschool, told Business Insider she thought "the more well-off people" in her area didn't want to wear masks. She said more affluent residents didn't think about wearing a mask as protecting workers in the businesses they frequent, which are typically staffed by lower-wage earners.

"They don't understand these people have to go to work and you might get them sick," she said.

Baker added that she thought Orange County's leadership was "really, really influenced by people who have a lot of power in the community - that might not necessarily be people in office, but people with money."

Without a national plan, division and chaos

Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told Business Insider that reopening schools safely should be the country's top priority - and that the US needs a national plan to do so.

"But it's very clear that we're not going to get a national plan on that, and so now we're going to leave it to each individual school district to try to sort this out," he said. "And I think that's really unfortunate."

In the void of a national plan, he said, the conversation has not been healthy. "No other country is debating masks. It's sort of like we're debating: Is drinking water good if you're thirsty?"

In places like Orange County, he said, schools that reopen in-person would most likely realize at some point in September "that they made a terrible set of decisions and they're going to try to walk it back, and it's not going to work."

Jha added that once there is a large outbreak in a school, the political pressure will be to shut the school down again, and then everybody will be "incredibly skittish" about reopening after that.

For Brude, the Newport Beach teacher, it comes down to people being in denial about the pandemic.

"It definitely seems, to a lot of people, if we accept that kids need to stay home, then we also have to accept that this is really serious," Brude said. "And I don't think a lot of people want to accept that."

The Orange County Board of Education did not respond to requests for comment.