The 500,000 students who attend public K-12 schools in Orange County likely will be out of school through the end of the academic year, after new recommendations from the state and county education officials for slowing the spread of coronavirus.

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People should have “the expectation now that schools will not re-open, but classes are in,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news briefing Wednesday.

“I just want to go deeply to express an appreciation to all of the moms, all of those teachers, all those caregivers. I know how stressful this is, trust me,” he added. “I know what we’re asking of you over the course of the next few months.”

It comes as disease models estimate social distancing in California will need to remain fully in effect into July to reduce COVID hospitalizations to zero. And even after hospitalizations drop to zero, public health experts have recommended that social distancing largely remain in place for weeks, if not months, to prevent the virus from coming back.

Public health officials and a White House task force estimate that social distancing, if kept in place, will save up to 2 million American lives nationally in the coming months, by reducing estimated deaths from between 1.5 million and 2.2 million, to between 100,000 and 240,000.

“Due to the current safety concerns and needs for ongoing social distancing it currently appears that our students will not be able to return to school campuses before the end of the school year,” California’s top K-12 education official, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, wrote in a statewide letter to school districts Tuesday.

Orange County’s top K-12 schools official agreed.

“I am recommending that school districts in Orange County cancel student attendance on campuses through the end of this academic year and channel their efforts toward adopting robust and effective distance learning models,” said Al Mijares, the county’s superintendent of schools, in a public message Wednesday.

“As we enter a new phase in our understanding of the [coronavirus] threat, it is time to address the reality that our efforts to flatten the curve and keep students safe cannot be accomplished in the span of a few weeks or even a month.”

It’s officially up to each school district’s board to decide on closing schools through the end of the academic year. But if some don’t, the governor can issue a statewide order requiring schools to stay closed to protect public health.

Many OC schools were not prepared to offer online classes when closures started more than two weeks ago, and many classes are still not available online for students.

And even if classes are online, many low-income students don’t have access to computers or home internet.

“Schools have been handing out thousands of [Google] Chomebooks and other devices” to students who don’t have access to computers, Fermin Leal, a spokesman for the Orange County Department of Education, told Voice of OC on Wednesday.

Schools have also been talking to internet service providers to provide free and reduced internet prices for students who need it, Leal said, adding that grab-and-go school lunches continue to be available at school districts for students who need it, he added.

“Hopefully once that [technology access is] up and running, every student will have equal access to continuity of learning, and if so needed, their school lunches.”

Up in Los Angeles County, the take-out lunch program at Pasadena Unified School District stopped temporarily on Monday after a kitchen staffer was suspected of potentially having COVID-19. The lunches were scheduled to start again the following day, after the district found a new food contractor.

“We have not heard of that happening in Orange County,” Leal said.

“If that were to happen, most likely it would come up to us [at the county Department of Education] to offer some sort of help or another resource,” he added.

It would be up to the individual district to decide how they want to handle it, Leal said. “But ultimately we would want them to either work with community partners or work with neighboring districts to continue that [lunch program],” perhaps through working with a local Boys & Girls Club or neighboring school district.

Almost 500,000 students attend K-12 public schools in Orange County, across 27 school districts that have more than 600 schools.

Leal said parents and the community can check for countywide updates about the K-12 school system on this web page from the OC Department of Education.

About 10,000 to-go lunches per day are now being served at Anaheim Union High School District, which is one of OC’s largest districts. It has 30,000 students across five cities – about 3,000 of whom are homeless under federal law.

That’s up from about 1,500 lunches picked up on the first day of school closures 2.5 weeks ago, said Mike Matsuda, the district’s superintendent, in an interview Wednesday.

The need for school lunches likely will continue to grow as parents are laid off from their jobs, he added.

“We know it’s going to get worse, because people are getting laid off,” Matsuda said. “That’s the only place to go for food for these kids.”

“We are prepared for the need. It’s going to be severe in low-income areas,” he added.

“There’s no question, low income people are going to be the most vulnerable to this whole pandemic, in terms of their jobs and their health care and access to food and basic services. So schools are almost like these big social service institutions, besides delivering education.”

Anaheim Union has been ramping up its online education for students, Matsuda said, with many teachers teaching via video. And about 170 teachers in the district have signed up to lead students on capstone-style projects about COVID-19, to make education “more relevant to their lives.”

Examples he cited included math and science projects looking at the curve of cases, and a photography teacher working with students on capturing their experiences through photography.

“We are focused on the social, emotional well-being of our students and our staff,” Matsuda said.

For the current generation of kids, he added, “this is going to be the 9/11, this is going to be the Vietnam War.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at

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