Orange County elementary schools could reopen for classroom teaching if parents, teachers and community groups sign off on the plans, along with interim health officer Dr. Clayton Chau.
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“Following review, the local health officer should consult with [the Department of Public Health] regarding the determination whether to grant or deny the waiver application. Local health officers may conditionally grant an application with limits on the number of elementary schools allowed to re-open or allow re-opening in phases to monitor for any impact on the community,” reads a Monday statement from the state Department of Public Health.
The department recommends no reopenings for elementary schools in counties that have exceeded 200 positive cases per 100,000 people.
Orange County’s case rate now sits at 115 per 100,000 people, after it hovered around 225 a couple weeks ago, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The lowered count comes after the county Health Care Agency reported over 17,000 tests on Monday, 422 of which were positive.
“Currently we are at 150 over 100,000, which is down from 221 just last week. We don’t know if the number will [show more cases]. We think that we will probably have a large number once the state fixes the system,” Chau said at last week’s County news conference.
However, state calculations show OC is at 227 new cases per 100,000 people as of Tuesday.
Questions about how 17,000 new tests were reported with such a low positive case number have gone unanswered by the Health Care Agency.
UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer questioned the drop in the positive cases to the new test ratio.
“Why did the percentage positive go way down? If the backlog of tests is representative of tests that were done in the community in the last two or three weeks, why is the percentage positive of this batch so much lower? I don’t have any insight,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview.
He said the data will eventually balance itself out.
“I’m not that exercised by it — the data will settle out again. The situation’s a lot better than it was a week and a half ago, but it’s not great,” Noymer said.
Meanwhile, Noymer said the death count is a good indicator of where the county stands.
The virus has now killed 653 people out of 38,066 confirmed cases.
“So what your readers should do is you conceive of it in the terms of the total number of deaths and look at the total and see how it’s growing,” Noymer said. “At the current rate, we’ll hit 1,000 deaths before Sept. 1.”
Hospitalizations continue to decrease, with 539 people in hospitals, including 167 in intensive care units.
Nearly 440,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
Dr. Dan Cooper, a UC Irvine pediatric professor who specializes in lung disease, has been working closely with school districts during the pandemic to form plans for when they reopen.
“I’m really hoping that we can open the schools sooner rather than later. Because we’re not going to have a virus free environment,” Cooper said in a July phone interview.
He said schools need to build robust testing, contact tracing and sanitation plans before they think about reopening.
“If anybody thinks they’re just going to stay at home and live in a closet, you’re wrong. That’s not going to happen. The school becomes the place, at the very least, we can teach the children what the best practices are (about virus precautions),” Cooper said. “It’s not that no kids are getting sick, it’s just that fewer are.”
On the flipside, Cooper said, researchers don’t know the effects of grouping children together in schools during the pandemic.
“Remember most of the studies that have been done to date were done when kids were sheltering in place, so we didn’t know what happens when you bring kids back together,” he said.
The elementary school waiver leaves the decision to reopen classrooms to local health officers, like Chau. The Health Care Agency has declined to answer questions about how they’ll handle the process, and said they would announce a decision after the waiver application was issued.
The agency did not respond to requests for comment on the issue from Voice of OC reporters on Tuesday morning.
The waiver applies to counties, like OC, that have been on the state’s virus watchlist for more than three days. The county has been on the watchlist for over a month.
A recommendation from the Orange County Board of Education calling for a return without masks or social distancing started a conversation between parents, teachers and administrators, with over 4,000 emails sent in that went unread by the board before they voted on the issue.
Voice of OC filed a public records request for those emails and released an analysis of the first 2,000 today, along with copies of each message.
The board’s recommendations hold no binding power over school districts.
Only kindergarten through sixth grade classes may return to the classroom, with no options granted for secondary school students. All charter and private schools can apply, along with individual public school districts. And students in third grade and above are required to wear masks.
A sample letter provided by the state shows that schools have to plan for students working in smaller cohorts, testing for staff and students potentially exposed to the virus and what could trigger a return to online teaching among a dozen other criteria.
School return plans also must show consultation with labor organizations and parents, and provide a plan for how schools will communicate with the public when someone tests positive. Any final plans must be posted online by that school for public access.
Officials who open schools without a waiver can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined.
In a Monday statement, Gov. Gavin Newsom said elementary school reopenings will be determined by local health data, which could also mean abrupt closures.
“The virus will be with us for a year or more, and school districts must provide meaningful instruction in the midst of this pandemic. In California, health data will determine when a school can be physically open – and when it must close – but learning should never stop. Students, staff, and parents all prefer in-classroom instruction, but only if it can be done safely.”
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.