A month ago, as many as 200 parents came to a meeting of the Orange County Board of Education to express outrage over what they heard was a mandate to vaccinate their children in schools without their approval.
That information was false. The next morning, the county’s public health director, Clayton Chau, felt the need to call a press conference to set the record straight and say, flat out, that he never contemplated vaccinating children without parental approval. He did this because his name had been repeatedly invoked as the person behind the alleged COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Now, a month later, the misinformation is being repeated — this time by the Board of Education.
The board is scheduled to consider a resolution, Wednesday, May 5, “against digital vaccine passport mandates.” As part of that, Board President Ken Williams introduced a statement – on behalf of the board – that repeats the very rumors Chau dispelled.
The statement refers to comments made by speakers during an April 7 meeting that “reflected outrage and were critical over earlier comments purportedly made by the OC Health Director who may have suggested mandating Covid-19 vaccinations to children, using schools as student vaccination centers, and perhaps finding legal means to bypass parental vaccination consent.”
Al Mijares, superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education, said he was disturbed when he read the statement on the board’s agenda.
“For anybody to perpetrate this is maligning (Chau) and is being untruthful and disingenuous,” Mijares said.
Pointing to several terms in the board’s statement that hedge accuracy – “purportedly,” “may have suggested,” and “perhaps” – Mijares said, they “used terms that allow you to evade the truth and the facts, yet create an impression.”
Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy and sociology at UC Riverside, reviewed the statement and accompanying resolution and called it “an irresponsible document.”
“This is misinformation peddling by elected officials.”
Asked about the statement, Williams wrote in an email Tuesday that it “is a clarification on the public’s misperception of what Chau stated in a public Zoom meeting.”
“The public comments at our April board meeting reflected that our constituents thought… the board supported Chau’s public statements about children’s vaccinations. Our statement is a statement of fact. It clearly makes no assertion that Chau made any of the statements the public accused him of.”
Chau could not be reached for comment.
During an April 8 telephone press conference, Chau dispelled rumors that he wanted to mandate vaccinations for youth and even do so without parental consent. He also referred to a video clip from a meeting he attended with charter and private school educators, shared on social media, in which he praised the Pfizer vaccine. In the clip, he stressed support for vaccinations – a stance echoed by public health officials around the world — telling the educators “we’re going to need your support to really educate our kids and our parents that they have to accept the vaccine. Because I feel very strongly that without the vaccine, we have no way out of this pandemic.”
During the April 8 press conference, Chau said: “I don’t know how that got translated to taking away parental rights. Wait a minute. That was in English.”
Mijares, who attended the same meeting with Chau and the educators, said this week, “I can tell you, emphatically,” that the rumors of what Chau said are untrue.
But Williams’ statement on Wednesday’s agenda repeats what riled parents to show up last month for a rally outside the Board of Education meeting, where more than 80 speakers made emotional pleas. Most were worried that their parental rights would be taken away, and some compared COVID-19 vaccinations to medical experimentation conducted by Nazis during the Holocaust.
A week after that school board meeting, some of the same people showed up to an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting, again comparing vaccinations to the Holocaust. Residents complained that proof of vaccination – a so-called vaccine passport – could violate people’s privacy. More recently, supervisors put on hold a pilot program that would allow those vaccinated through the county’s Othena vaccination app to have a digital record of their shots.
The agenda statement for the upcoming Board of Education meeting is one of several controversial items on the docket. Board members also are scheduled to discuss staging two forums this summer on ethnic studies, which was approved by state educators in March, and critical race theory, an academic concept that looks at the nature of institutional racism but which is not typically taught in K-12 schools.
The Orange County Board of Education, made up of five elected members, has little say over what the county’s 27 school districts can and can’t do. Their primary role includes ruling on appeals from students who wish to transfer from one district to another and hearing appeals from charter school applicants who’ve been denied by individual school districts. But in recent years, those who are opposed to certain education issues, such as the state’s Common Core standards, sex education and more recently, vaccinations, have turned to the board.
“The motives of this board are probably as much political as they are about public health,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and public health associate professor at UC Irvine.
Noymer said it’s too early to discuss mandatory COVID-19 shots for high school students, saying that coronavirus vaccines – unlike vaccines for measles and chicken pox –have not yet received final government approval. Also, he noted, children can’t get vaccinated without their parents’ approval.
“They’re attacking something that doesn’t exist,” Noymer said. “No kid comes home from school saying they’ve been jabbed by a school nurse.”
But Noymer said he doesn’t have a problem with discussions about vaccine passports, which he called “a really bad idea” that he believes will violate individuals’ privacy and create an array of problems.
Carpiano, of UC Riverside, said the board’s proposed resolution against passports – much like the agenda statement he described as misleading – is filled with emotionally laden language that foments distrust about the vaccine.
“It promotes disinformation and sows doubt, confusion, fear and emotion. And it undermines future types of reasoned discussion around these issues,” he said.
“It insults the intelligence of the public.”
Board member Tim Shaw said Tuesday he had not yet read the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting. Told of the language in the statement, he said he wants to be fair to Dr. Chau.
“I believe things were said that were not on the (video) clip being circulated. But I don’t know that for sure,” Shaw said. “I always want our board to be factually accurate in anything we’re saying.”
Board member Beckie Gomez, the only trustee to regularly wear a face mask during meetings and often in the minority on controversial votes, said she disagreed with the statement, citing “no evidence” that Chau many any comments mandating vaccines for students. Gomez also said the proposed anti-vaccine passport resolution, which is a symbolic measure with no binding results, is unnecessary.