Orange County schools are slated to get hundreds of millions of dollars from the state to equip students and staff for online learning during the coronavirus pandemic as the start of the school year draws near.
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Although state officials last week released a waiver for elementary schools to reopen this upcoming school year, middle and high schools are still required to begin the school year online. Most OC school districts have already geared up to start classes online.
“Let’s face it, 97 percent of our schools or so are in distance learning — at least to start — as a way of being safe,” said State Superintendent of Public instruction Tony Thurmond, at a Friday news conference with Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The state budget set aside $5.3 billion for schools statewide in an effort to get more internet access and computers to students in poor school districts. The money is also geared at general needs to provide online learning, mental health services, breakfast and lunch.
New mandates came with the money also. Schools now have to provide a digitally live, daily interaction between teachers and students. They also have to implement specialized lessons for English learners and special education students.
In total, Orange County public schools will get just over $356 million. An additional $8.5 million is being sent to individual charter schools.
Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove received the most funding, coming to a combined total of $154 million between their five districts that cover K-12.
Every school district received at least $1 million, and most received less than $10 million. Charter schools received far less, with the vast majority taking in a mid six-figures range.
“It is so important to have those resources. Those $5.3 billion is just incredible,” Thurmond said, adding there’s a shortage of computers and internet hotspots for students.
“There’s a run on supplies, world wide.”
State school officials also said they’ll release guidance next week for reopening classrooms for small groups of students who aren’t able to learn online.
California Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said school officials will use the current childcare programs for essential workers as guidelines in an effort to keep kids in “cohorts” in an effort to minimize group mixing.
She said many districts will use the small group setting using the guidelines, which will give schools the ability “to bring back in-person those students whose needs are just difficult to meet online and much better in person.”
State school officials are also looking to use the funding to address learning gaps and other inequities in the school system.
“We know that there’s been a digital divide, but our effort is to provide technology during the pandemic and use our digital divide task force to close the divide,” Thurmond said.
The virus has now killed 789 people out of 42,854 confirmed cases in Orange County since the pandemic took hold in March, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 people in a year.
As of Friday, 436 people were hospitalized because of the virus, including 152 in intensive care units.
Nearly 528,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
Newsom, speaking at Friday’s news conference, said trends need to be steady before any classroom reopenings are considered for middle and high schools throughout the state.
Although he said it could happen “sooner than later if we continue to wear a mask. Continue to take seriously the need to physically distance.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.