In a couple weeks, some students and teachers may be returning to their classrooms after months away now that the County is off the state’s coronavirus watchlist.

The intense debate to return to the classrooms is months old and when the Orange County Board of Education recommended a reopening without masks or social distancing it drew reactions from across the country.

Over 4,000 emails were sent into the county’s board of education from parents, teachers, students, medical professionals and community members – a majority of which were against their recommendations.

The board however, never gave the thousands who wish to speak on reopenings a chance to be heard. 

“No one even bothered to read our comments,” Dana Leigh Cisneros, a parent in the Orange Unified School District told the Voice of OC. “But I’m sitting there scratching my head, like, What in God’s name is the point of a public comment if you vote without reading the public comment? You didn’t even consider what we said. What if Jesus himself wrote in?”

The Voice of OC spent weeks combing through the thousands of emails and published them to amplify those voices in the community. The Voice of OC also reached out to several of the parents, teachers and students who emailed the board to see if they would share their perspectives on school reopenings and distance learning.

Lawyer Dana Leigh Cisneros and her 5-year-old son engage in virtual learning from their home in Anaheim. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Cisneros is one of a thousand parents that wrote in against the board’s recommendations. 

“What the board did was reckless. It’s not even negligent. It’s like they literally looked at something with very clear guidelines established by health departments and doctors or scientists and said, we’re going to come up with our own thing,” she said.

Her 5-year-old son started kindergarten last week from a desk at home. She said despite a few technical difficulties his first day of distance learning went well.

Not every parent agrees with Cisneros on distant learning and her support for wearing a mask at schools. 

A Garden Grove Unified School District student does her school work from a laptop at home. Credit: Courtesy of Kenda Taylor

“I don’t want my kid to have to wear a mask to school, if they are perfectly healthy,” said Kenda Taylor, a parent in the Garden Grove Unified School District. 

Taylor said that students shouldn’t go to school if they have symptoms and can choose to wear a mask if they are concerned about the safety of a loved one.

She added that the switch to online learning negatively impacted her 10-year-old son and her 12-year-old daughter.

“The loss of that face to face with the teacher, the interaction with other kids – it really did impact them – my son more so and he was in tears a couple times during it,” Taylor said in an interview. “It was so frustrating to her, but she wasn’t as sad as he was about not being in school.”

Taylor is worried what type of effect mask wearing is going to have on the next generation.

“I think we’re going to raise a bunch of kids that are not going to know how to relate to one another if we have this go on for a long period of time,” Taylor said.

An Irvine Unified School District Student participating in distance learning from home. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

For one 13-year-old in the Irvine Unified School District the move to online has also been a challenge and she said she became disengaged from the lessons. Her father has asked that the Voice of OC keep her name anonymous so it doesn’t affect her future.

She wrote to the board in favor of a return to schools with no masks and no social distancing. Time away from her friends and teachers took a toll on her well being.

“When you see a person after six months that you haven’t seen for that long, the only thing you want to do is give them a hug and talk to them and be near them,” she said about concerns for mandating masks and social distancing.

The Irvine student said she has always loved school and the support group of teachers and friends it had provided. Months away from the classroom has hindered that support.

“I still love school and I still love learning and I still love being there. I just wish I was actually there instead of at home and actually interacting face to face with everyone,” she said.

Sophie Huynh, was one of several students who wrote in to the Orange County Board of Education and spoke against recommendations to reopen schools without masks or social distancing measures. Credit: Courtesy of Sophie Huynh

A majority of the students who wrote in to the board were against the reopening of schools without masks and social distancing like Sophie Huynh in the Huntington Beach Union High School District.

For Huynh being a student in the midst of a global pandemic has been a unique experience.

“It’s obviously not something any other generation has gone through before. I think that learning has definitely changed because of it and that a lot of things like our mental health have been different. Overall, it’s been pretty tough trying to keep connections and stay safe at the same time,” Huynh said.

Hearing the board’s recommendations upset her and she said if she had to go to school under those circumstances it would worry her a lot.

“I would have to be so close to people who could potentially have the virus, not take it seriously and still go around acting like everything was normal. When my family at home could be in danger. My grandparents could be in danger. My friends could be in danger,” Huynh said.

Orange Unified School District physical education teacher Kenneth Pedersen teaches his classes virtually from home but wants to be back in the classroom. Credit: Courtesy of Kenneth Pederson

There are teachers who believe the time to be back in the classrooms is now like Kenneth Pedersen who teaches physical education to middle schoolers in the Orange Unified School District. Pedersen wrote to the board in support of their recommendations.

“Physical education is really not conducive to the online learning environment,” Pedersen said about distance learning. “I feel that me being on a television or on a computer screen, I cannot convey what I really want to do. I cannot critique my students the way they need to be critiqued. I cannot correct form.” 

Pedersen said when his classes went online at the start of the pandemic about half his students stopped participating in the lessons. One student he recalled in particular that had always been a good student but stopped turning in work after distance learning started.

“She told me that her situation at home was not good. There’s a lot of negative things going on in the household and that she really could not be productive like she wanted to,” Pedersen said. “She told me essentially that school was her sanctuary. School is where she succeeded and where she did well, and she excelled. At home, it was the exact opposite.”

He said that kids need that emotional and social bond and that as a teacher he needs to get to know his students – a difficult task to do online. Pedersen was on his way to coaching an undefeated season for the Girl’s basketball team at his school but the Pandemic put an end to the season with two games left.

He added that from a Physical Education perspective masks and social distancing just won’t work.

Still many teachers who wrote into the board are scared to return to the classroom without those safety measures for fear of spreading the virus or dying from it.

Blair Campbell, a first grade teacher and parent in the Fullerton School District, wrote to the board describing her concerns. She has been back in the classroom for weeks now while her students watch her instruction virtually from home.

“It was a very different situation starting out this year. I don’t know these students at all, I’m trying to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, trying to figure out their family dynamics,” Campbell said. “You’re not only just learning about these kids, but you’re really seeing their situations of where they’re at and what their day to day life is like at home.”

She said she is very appreciative and loves working in the Fullerton School District but if the district had followed the Orange County Board of Education’s recommendations she probably would have joined a strike, adding that the fact that masks and social distancing is even a debate in Orange County is disappointing.

When asked if now would be a good time to open up the classrooms again, Campbell said she feels for both sides of the argument but there is no good choice.

“I feel like both choices are bad choices in a way,” Campbell said. “Although I am still afraid to go back in the classroom, I’m also afraid to stay distance learning because I worry about all of my little kids.”

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

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.