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Some teachers are uneasy while others are scared to return to the classroom when the school year starts up again in fear of adding to the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in Orange County.

Still, after nearly a semester of virtual learning some of them have raised concerns over the quality of education online, especially for students with disabilities who are struggling without the face-to-face classroom interactions. Fears over the mental well-being of students who would be stuck at home learning from behind a screen have also become part of the discourse.

The debate over how to balance the health and welfare of students and teachers with in-person instruction is roiling not just Orange County but the nation, with school districts formulating their individual plans for the new school year as coronavirus cases continue to soar.

Some county school districts are giving the option for children to learn virtually from home or select a hybrid method that splits up the week between online and in-person instruction, putting some teachers back into the classroom.

“If any of you were inside the classroom teaching, would you feel comfortable? If I get sick would one of you be willing to take over my classroom for a few weeks?” Blair Campbell, a teacher at Beechwood School in Fullerton, wrote in a public comment submitted to the Orange County Board of Education and sent to the Fullerton Elementary School District.

“I’m afraid of dying or killing someone else that I love because I’ve spread this virus. I speak for many many MANY teachers that work for you. We are scared,” Campbell added.

Campbell told the Voice of OC in a phone interview that teachers’ perspectives need to be heard and valued when the districts decide how they’re going to reopen.

“We’re all just sort of at our wits end with what’s happening and I personally just feel like teachers’ voices are the last people listened to,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of policy makers making a lot of decisions when they’re not the ones actually in the classroom.”

At a June meeting of the Orange County Board of Education, some teachers spoke against the state guidelines on reopening schools, which include wearing of face masks and social distancing.

“I ask you to allow kids to come back,” a kindergarten teacher said at the meeting. “I ask you to allow them to come back without masks, without social distancing.”

Teachers who are against returning say they recognize that in-person teaching is the best and they want to get back into the classroom but emphasized that it’s just not safe right now. 

The Fullerton School District, Fullerton Joint Union High School District, and Tustin Unified School District are among those that have approved plans for reopening with options for hybrid instruction. 

The Santa Ana Unified School District had initially approved a similar plan last week but announced on Tuesday that the school year in Santa Ana will start entirely online. Other districts have yet to approve a plan, including the Laguna Beach Unified, Garden Grove Unified and Huntington Beach City school districts. 

The Orange County Board of Education’s recommendations this week to reopen classrooms without masks or social distancing triggered an intense debate about how to reopen schools this fall. Those suggestions by the board run counter to both the state and the county’s own education department’s guidelines. 

It will be up to the individual school districts to decide how schools will reopen. Several districts have sent out surveys to stakeholders, including teachers and parents, on how to best reopen.

Denise Bradford, president of Saddleback Valley Educators Association, said teacher unions have been having conversations with the districts about the pending in-person return to schools and feels teachers and students shouldn’t return until it’s safe.

Bradford said that while school is out teachers are still working during the summer to prepare for the new school year. She also singled out Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent statewide order to close indoor shopping malls, barber shops, gyms as well as indoor restaurant dining.

“I think it’s super interesting that the state is willing to make line by line demands on hairdressers and restaurants but when it comes to teachers and students, they’ll say whenever possible, or if possible,” Bradford said. 

The California Teachers Association, a statewide union with over 300,000 members, has submitted a letter to elected leaders in the state saying California cannot reopen schools unless they are safe. 

“The recent surge in the infection rate and the closure of indoor activities in 26 counties gives us pause around the state’s preparedness for safe in-person school instruction in a short six- to eight-week time frame,” reads the letter.

“We are deeply concerned that politics are being played with the lives of children and the educators who serve them,” it goes on to say.

The union also calls for more funding to help schools prepare for the return to classrooms and get the necessary personal protective equipment and other resources needed.

Harley Litzelman, a high school history teacher and union organizer in Oakland, has started a nationwide online campaign for teachers to refuse to return to school until the counties they live in have reported no new cases of the virus for 14 days. 

A chapter of the movement has started in Orange County.

Litzelman is not calling for a strike but for teachers to resume instruction online until the spread of the coronavirus is halted and has started a petition that is circulating online showing nearly 56,000 signatories as of Thursday night.

Alicia Jacinto, a teacher at Valencia High School in Placentia, said her colleagues from all across Orange County think the best choice for schools is to start online.

“We left school with the hope of being able to come back normal,” Jacinto said. “None of us want to go back and I think if anybody tries to say we have to go back full time with no distancing there is going to be a lot of push back.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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