Masking, critical race theory highlight Corona-Norco schools meeting

Any school board meeting with both masks and critical race theory on the agenda has a lot going for it, which is how I found myself at the Corona-Norco Unified School District board room.

Not surprisingly, the room Tuesday night, Aug. 3 was at capacity. If the district wanted to get everyone’s attention, two hot-button issues certainly did the trick.

When I showed up in Norco, about 50 people were standing in the parking lot outside. I pulled on the door handle, which was locked, and found myself waiting next to Norco Councilwoman Kathy Aleman.

Someone opened the door and asked what I wanted. Uh, to attend a public meeting? I introduced myself as being from the newspaper.

Within two minutes, an official was opening the door, telling me “we have one seat” and ushering me inside, like the maitre d’ at an exclusive restaurant mortified to learn an A-lister was outside. (Aleman, by the way, never did get in and ended up watching from home.)

Two sheriff’s deputies were stationed in the hallway and my seat was next to a third deputy. Evidently things got heated at the last board meeting, with anti-maskers shouting at board members, leading to extra security.

Tuesday’s meeting stayed relatively calm, of all the rotten luck. And per the policy for entry to the room, everyone had to be masked. Which was a relief for a visiting journalist, and also a little comical, since a bunch of people who were there to object to masks had to wear masks.

Critical race theory came up first, so let’s start with that.

It was on the agenda at the request of resident Stacie Holley, who’s against it, and at the acquiescence of the board, under the principle that refuting it would be a teachable moment.

Thus, the agenda had a two-page resolution, “District Stance on Critical Race Theory.”

The stance was that only legal scholars employ the theory, which doesn’t have anything to do with K-12 education, and that “special interest groups” around the country have latched onto the phrase to oppose “such topics as diversity, cultural tolerance, equity and inclusion,” which the district would continue to promote.

Response from speakers was mixed, and also limited: Rather than hours of public comments, the board allots only 20 minutes per topic. I have to say, in three decades of covering public agencies, I’ve never encountered a rule quite like that. But it did cut down on the repetition and hot air.

A line in the resolution saying the district opposed “sowing dissension” in class came under fire. One speaker said she certainly hoped teachers wouldn’t sow dissension, while others said the phrase was so ambiguous that debates in speech class might qualify.

My favorite speaker was the woman who humorlessly compared the “good intentions” behind critical race theory to, yes, “communism,” adding that “20 to 40 million people were murdered by Stalin.” She also complained about “woke athletes” at the Olympics.

You might say the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and the Olympics are a little far afield for public education in Corona and Norco. But hey, she had good intentions.

Superintendent Sam Buenrostro advised the board to simply drop the resolution.

“We do not teach critical race theory and passing (the resolution) or voting against it will muddy the waters,” Buenrostro said.

Board member Jose Lalas, a professor with a Ph.D. who teaches critical race theory to his doctoral students at University of Redlands, wasn’t quite ready to drop it.

He proposed a series of forums to engage with the community about critical race theory and go in depth about what it is. He sounded ready to lead a symposium or something.

Buenrostro urged the board to avoid getting sidetracked. Thankfully everyone moved on.

As for masking, some in the audience wore matching T-shirts with the slogan “My Child My Choice” or had such handmade signs as “Your fear doesn’t take away my freedom to infect you” — oh, wait, I added those last words.

District officials said California’s Department of Public Health is mandating masks for all in the K-12 grades, and that’s regardless of anyone’s vaccination status to avoid stigma, bullying or isolation. The Centers for Disease Control on July 27 recommended masking as well.

“As we’re reading the law now, it’s mandated,” legal counsel Jim Romo said. If Corona-Norco Unified defied the state, he said, officials and board members might face civil liability “for gross negligence.”

Board president Bill Pollock said: “I hate these masks, but we need to do everything we can to keep kids in in-person learning. We need to do everything in our power not to close down.”

Speakers were split on masking. Some said this wasn’t the time to relax our vigilance. Others said masks are useless or should be a choice.

Two young students came to the lectern separately to speak. The first said she’d been too shy to participate in class because of her mask. (And yet she wasn’t too shy to speak into a microphone to a room full of adults.)

The second expressed various anti-masking beliefs, including: “I believe it suffocates children.” She added that she has asthma and was going to remove her mask to take a breath — then continued talking with her mask down.

An adult gently said that now that she’d taken her breath she should put her mask back on. Her mother objected. The girl continued speaking without her mask, and with a smirk.

It was awkward for all concerned, and I don’t blame the girl. But her mother should go stand in the corner.

If a child refuses to mask at school — or decides to take a breath that lasts all day — what then?

If the teacher and principal can’t get compliance, the parent would be called and given the choice of online learning from home “so we can continue with the educational process,” Assistant Superintendent Reggie Thompkins said.

The girl’s mother urged parents to show up to the next board meeting to protest masks. I hope they won’t be sowing dissension!

David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday, more to dissent from. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.