Parents Voice Frustrations Over COVID-19 Restrictions at BHUSD Meeting

The Beverly Hills Unified School District (BHUSD) Board of Education reexamined the district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy at its Feb. 8 meeting. The district has logged a fast decline in cases from its peak following winter break. At the same time, frustration with rules regarding masking, testing, and quarantining has grown among parents and students, with an increasingly vocal group of parents speaking out to the board.

But, as the board explained, its power is limited by the guidelines set out by public health authorities.

“We’re in a really good place,” said Superintendent Dr. Michael Bregy. As of Feb. 10, the district only registered 15 active cases among students and staff, a steep drop from the more than 240 cases reported at the start of school in January.

“It is time for us to make some changes,” said board member Dr. Amanda Stern. “I know that there are two camps, and both are very vocal. But I can tell you, as someone who works with children every single day and has for the last 20 years throughout Los Angeles, without a doubt, children are suffering.”

While the meeting comes shortly before California’s indoor mask mandate for vaccinated individuals expires after Feb. 15, the district is governed by stricter county rules; in Los Angeles County, indoor and outdoor mask mandates remain in place. Although BHUSD is free to implement protections that go beyond those required by state and local public health departments, it cannot go against public health directives.

As BHUSD Director of Public Relations Rebecca Starkins clarified, per the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health), ending testing for symptomatic students and students who participate in high-risk activities “is not on the table.”

Public Health also requires universal masking with some exceptions for both indoor and outdoor settings on the school campus. The district presently tests all unvaccinated students once a week, fully vaccinated staff once a week and staff that is not fully vaccinated twice a week. Weekly PCR testing at BHUSD, which allows for any percentage of randomly selected vaccinated students to be tested for COVID-19, is not required by Public Health.

“This is a dynamic process, and this is a dynamic program,” board President Mary Wells said. “So, if cases are moving up, if we have some unforeseen surge, then we will reevaluate this again. It’s not that we said we’re not having masks or we’re doing minimum testing, and we’re never going back. The situation changed.”

On Feb. 10, the number of COVID-19 positive patients in county hospitals fell below 2,500. According to Public Health

Director Barbara Ferrer, if the number stays below 2,500 for seven days, the county will lift its mask mandate for outdoor mega events and outdoors at schools and childcare centers.

Previously, the board has expressed support for pushing back on county guidelines, directing school staff to explore potential repercussions of loosening masking and testing requirements. Bregy presented the board with some findings, saying that some schools that had flouted the safety measures had faced fines.

Board member Gabriel Halimi reiterated the idea of opposing public health officials at the meeting.

“At this point, I want to make the best decisions for our students, irrespective of what any governing body is telling us to do,” Halimi said. “We will figure out what the repercussions may be.”

Nationwide, school boards, administrators and families have been debating mask policy since the start of the school year. On Feb. 7, the board received a letter on behalf of San Diego-based anti-mask group Let Them Breathe. The group has pursued a strategy of legal challenges against masking requirements and vaccine mandates in other school districts and claims that it is prepared to do the same in Beverly Hills.

“We are hoping that BHUSD will take our demands to heart based on comments made by board members during the COVID-19 special study session and will advocate for and implement positive change in the district,” Sharon McKeeman, founder of Let Them Breathe, told the Courier. “However, if necessary, we will take legal action against BHUSD and/or LACDPH to ensure that school children are not subject to harsher restrictions than all other individuals in LA County. It is our aim to protect children’s mental and physical health during this difficult time.”

In response to the letter, Starkins reiterated that the district “does not have any policy that goes beyond the recommendations of the state or the county” outside of its weekly PCR testing program.

In order to accurately capture sentiment among parents, the board is preparing a district-wide survey on questions such as masks and vaccine mandates. Student board member Eli Ramer suggested preparing a similar survey for students as well.

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