The Orange County Board of Education’s recommendations this week to reopen classrooms without masks or social distancing triggered a fiery debate about how to reopen schools this fall.

The County board’s actions also prompted a host of school districts – who will have the actual say on how schools reopen – to post notices online about their plans in response to a mountain of questions from concerned parents.

Districts are giving the option for children to learn virtually from home or to come to school a couple days of the week for instruction with online learning the other days of the week. 

The County Department of Education Superintendent Al Mijares said that all the districts are different and a decision on how to reopen schools will depend on each one.

“It’s important to underscore that each district has its own duly elected board. If there are any other forces trying to converge upon the system itself, the only voices that are going to set policy at the local level is the local school board,” Mijares said.

School districts have sent out surveys to school stakeholders including teachers and parents on how to best reopen come August. These stakeholders however are divided over whether there should even be an option for students to come back to school. 

Some believe that it is not worth the risk of spreading the Coronavirus and while children are at low risk from the virus they could spread it to older family members and relatives.

Others have expressed concern over the quality of education being provided online following the spring semester when the pandemic pushed districts into virtual learning. Especially for students with disabilities who are struggling without the hands-on face to face interactions with their teachers. 

Orange County Congressional representatives sent a letter Tuesday to the County Board of Education questioning how they came up with their recommendations and requesting a briefing to better understand them.

We are deeply concerned by the Board’s decision to not address the health threats that COVID-19 poses to our communities with its recommendations to reopen schools without the use of face masks, social distancing, or reduced class sizes,” reads the letter.

The County board of education’s recommendations go against guidelines developed by Mijares and the Orange County Department of Education which stresses social distancing and face coverings when social distancing measures are hard to maintain.

However it will be up to the individual school district boards’ of education and superintendents to develop plans to reopen that best suits the needs of their communities. 

“The (OC Board of Education) majority’s recommendations are not binding and La Habra City School District will not open our schools under these conditions,” reads a statement from La Habra City School District Superintendent Joanne Culverhouse. “Our plan will be finalized by the end of next week or sooner.”

Capistrano Unified School District board of trustees and the Centralia Elementary School District’s governing board is set to vote on their plans today. Both plans will have options for in-person and distance learning.

Lowell Joint School District will be having a town hall meeting today through Zoom to discuss what the 2020-21 school year will look like and has yet to finalize a plan. The district does plan to offer an option for students to learn from home through the Lowell Joint Virtual Academy. There will be another town hall meeting on the virtual academy on July 16.

Cypress School District has announced that they will be sharing their plans this Friday with the community. Registration is set to start on July 20 with options available to choose from.

Some districts have already approved plans that will allow families the option to keep their children home and learn virtually. Families will also have the option to send their children two days a week to school. The other days of instruction will be taught virtually online.

Districts that have approved plans for reopening with options for in-person instruction on some days of the week and virtual instruction on others. These include the Fullerton Joint Union and Tustin Unified school districts.

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 virtual. The decision came on the heels of the County’s Board of Education’s recommendations to reopen.

Mijares said that the challenges in the Santa Ana Unified School district, a large district in the county, could be exponentially bigger because overcrowding is an issue.

“Once you go into this, you can’t pull back out. In other words, if you see that there’s a spike in the disease,” Mijares said. “Then you have to make adjustments just like a quarterback who audiblies at the line of scrimmage. You have to make adjustments, but it’s better to know what you’re going into then find yourself getting surprised.”

The Anaheim Union High School District is also recommending the year starts up with a full distance learning model.The District Board of Trustees will be voting this Thursday, July 16, to decide on the reopening of schools for the 2020-21 school year. 

Residents of Anaheim and Santa Ana have been hit particularly hard by the virus. 

Other districts have yet to approve a plan including the Laguna Beach Unified, Garden Grove Unified and Huntington Beach City school districts. Some districts will be waiting till later in the month to decide.

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

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