Parents voice overwhelming support to “set our kids free”

ATASCADERO — The Atascadero Unified School District (AUSD) held a special School Board of Trustees Meeting on Thursday, Jul. 22, at 11 a.m. 

The purpose of the meeting was to share information regarding the current restrictions which will be placed on children who plan on returning to in-person schooling next month. Public comment was also heard in the form of in-person audience members and letters sent in from parents.

Open session began with the pledge of allegiance and a moment of silence. Next, board President George Shoemaker announced that there was nothing to report from closed session. He then explained the purpose of the meeting, which was to present an informational item and allow oral communication from the public. The board voted in favor to move for oral communications 7-0.

Getting through this together, Atascadero

Superintendent Tom Butler then gave his report in which he praised the summer school program, provided an update on the “good progress” being made on both the removal of the B building and on the tennis courts.

The Trustees approved the minutes from the meeting on Jun. 29 in a 7-0 vote and then moved on to administrative business regarding the revision of the AUSD plan for the reopening of schools in response to COVID-19.

Superintendent Butler reiterated that today’s meeting was meant to be informational only and that at some point prior to the start of school, at a future board meeting, “the board will need to consider voting and approving a plan just like the one that’s here today.”

“One of the elements that I’ve been sharing,” Butler said, “is that the trustees…and our staff—we’re the educational agency for this district, and our backgrounds are in education. Clearly, we’re not the public health office. I want to make sure that there’s some clarity there… and so that agency in the state of California that’s responsible for the health of the citizens in our state is the California Department of Public Health, and then they will branch down into the county departments of public health. That’s where you hear the mandates on the mask come from.”

Butler then reminded the public that AUSD is also an employer, which means that they have to be mindful of CalOSHA. He also informed the public that the San Luis Obispo (SLO) Department of Public Health has reasserted the mask mandate for students and staff to wear a mask in a classroom setting, regardless of vaccination status. This applies to both public schools and private schools. Masks will be optional in an outside setting, including before school, lunch, recess, passing periods, athletics, and after-school activities.

Butler stated that vaccines are not required for students and staff at this time and that as a district, they are not collecting any information about vaccination status. He then presented a caveat in which an individual could be approached and asked about vaccination status by a San Luis Obispo County Department Public Health worker, as they are actively engaging in contact tracing.

“Now it’s that individual’s choice whether they want to divulge that or not,” Butler said. “That’s their own private business, but you could hear people get questioned about it in a contact tracing scenario.”

“To set the stage for the school year,” Butler continued, “we’re going to be fully open—a full school day, full class size… all extra-curricular, all co-curricular activities will be in full force, and we’re glad to have all those back.”

Butler then encouraged the public to consider sharing feelings and opinions with the SLO County Department of Public Health, County Supervisors, and Elected State Officials. He shared that a resolution is being talked about among the trustees, which could come at the next board meeting, in which the board would communicate a public statement to a board of public officials. The resolution would make a case for safely opening our schools based on SLO County’s health metrics as opposed to state-wide statistics.

Trustee Ray Buban brought up the issue of litigation protection. Butler responded by citing advice from legal counsel, which is to follow the public health agency’s guidelines. “If we’re following the general health guidelines established by health professionals, that would lower our litigation risk should anything happen.”

Trustee Mary Kay Mills then asked about the recently released state guidance, which seemed to indicate that each individual district would have the option of whether or not to require masks.

Butler called this “really misleading information, frankly. The masks are still required once again in a K-12 classroom setting. The level in which the districts have local control is in enforcing it…does it become a student discipline issue? Are there procedures? How are we going to engage with families if they were to send their child to school without a mask?”

Butler described a “compassionate” approach in which the parents would be contacted and provided with other options such as distance learning, independent studies, and homeschool.

Trustee Mills pressed further, asking, “so like myself, if Cayden doesn’t attend school this year because she’s required to wear a mask, then is ACE Academy an option?” Butler affirmed that virtual learning would be an option in this case.

Trustee Corrinne Kuhnle then asked, “should we open with the mask mandate, and then as time moves on…they take the mask mandate away if you are a parent who has enrolled your child into the virtual program, or ACE Academy, how difficult would that be for them to go back to the classroom after they’ve started?”

“It won’t be difficult for our parents,” Butler responded. “It may take a little shuffling, but we certainly want to be very responsive at that moment. We want to do that in a timely turnaround so that we can act very quickly.”

Trustee Buban then reminded parents that on Page 9, number E of the proposal, a doctor can provide a note of exemption from the mask mandate for students.

Buban then asked, “If we don’t follow the mask mandate, what are the consequences to the district besides the litigation?”

Butler answered that “there are some funding sources that are attached to following the guidelines and having a board-approved plan… and some of those are in the tune of millions of dollars, and so those would be at risk of being lost.”

Executive Assistant to Superintendent Stacey Phillips then read aloud the correspondence the board had received, all of which addressed the mask mandate. There were nine letters read. Seven of the letters were in favor of compliance with mask mandates, and two were in favor of personal choice for all families.

Finally, members of the audience spoke on the mask mandate. Fourteen speakers weighed in, all of whom spoke in favor of personal choice regarding masks. The prominent themes were a need for tolerance toward children of all beliefs, the importance of following science and data as opposed to government regulation, the negative impact of masks on children’s physical and mental health, big tech’s censorship of accurate and pertinent information, and a conflict of interest in the source of funding for the one of the agencies guiding policy.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is funded by Pfizer. That is all you need to hear about that. Every decision you’re making here today is money-driven, just as the AAP. All we’ve heard about is the funding. When are you going to start worrying about the well-being of the children?” said Jennifer Grainger, Chair of the SLO Chapter of Moms4Liberty. “We know that they are not at risk for getting COVID. Virtually no child is…you’re proposing causing other illnesses in children, causing lifetime mental health issues in children over a 0.0003 death rate.”

Perhaps the biggest encouragement to parents struggling with the lack of educational options was the rise of practical solutions being proposed by the audience members. Parents have set up trailers with tutors to assist homeschooling families, and Moms4Liberty has a mask-free full-time school in the works for the fall. Grainger says they have secured funding sources, teachers, and churches who are willing to help make this a reality because they “are not willing to participate in the abuse any longer.”

The sentiment of the public comment was perhaps best summed up by parent Kim Paul’s plea to “set our kids free.”

Once all public comment was heard, the meeting was adjourned. The next AUSD Board meeting will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m.