Orange County Residents Debate Going Back to School

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

An empty Wilson Elementary school in Santa Ana on July 12, 2020.

Orange County’s Board of Education call for a return to classrooms without masks or social distancing last month drew a host of reactions from across the country.

Yet panel members never gave Orange County residents their own chance to sound off. 

Parents, teachers and administrators have been discussing what a fall return could look like for months. 

It hasn’t been easy.

School districts are struggling to find a balance between safety and normalcy, in an environment where new information on the virus is being released almost daily. 

Orange County’s Board of Education was among the first to suggest what a Fall return should look like, issuing controversial guidelines in July opting for a full return without masks or social distancing.

That touched off a fierce debate.

Over 4,000 email comments were submitted for the Board of Education’s July 13 meeting but board members chose not to publicly acknowledge any of the emails before taking a vote. 

Board members instead chose to hear from 20, in-person commenters who seemed to have been picked at random but were overwhelmingly in favor of the board’s proposal. 

The board still has not published the emails on their website, which they are required to do under the Brown Act, and has not announced a plan on how to release the emails to the public. The only information published by the board is a list of names from the commenters.

Voice of OC filed a public records request the night of the July 13 meeting, hoping to see what the public’s opinion of the recommendations were, and has reviewed half the emails. 

Hundreds of readers responded to a Voice of OC survey about whether the nonprofit news agency should publish local voices on the issue. Given the fluid nature of the issue, editors opted to unveil the database with comments as soon as possible. The remaining 2000 emails are expected to be published as soon as possible. 

Here’s a look at the database so far. 

A vast majority of the public comments reviewed so far were in favor of schools remaining closed until proper safety protocols could be implemented. 

Of the 2,097 emails reviewed by this publication date, 1,540 commenters said they were against the board’s proposed guidelines for reopening free of restrictions and 345 commenters were clearly in favor of a return to classrooms without masks or social distancing.

The remaining commenters fell somewhere in between or spoke on other agenda items. Some of the emails begged the board to reopen schools but did not voice an opinion on masks or social distancing, and others agreed that it was time to reopen but wanted masks and distancing measures in place.

Multiple medical professionals, teachers, educators, parents, students and family members all sent emails concerned for the lives of loved ones who would return to the classroom during the pandemic scared of spreading the virus without masks and social distancing. 

“I became very sick with Covid on June 23. I immediately quarantined at home, but I had already exposed my husband and kids. BOTH my children came down with flu symptoms in 6 days. YES, they had fevers, aches, chills, coughs, congestion. Yes they recovered in a week, BUT THEY GOT THE VIRUS JUST BY BEING EXPOSED TO ME. That also means they can easily get this virus again in their classroom this Fall with your recommendations in place,” wrote one mother.

“I personally know a student in LA who is a few years younger than me and passed away due to complications from this virus, and I ask you to think about how it would feel if that was a child you knew, and how you would feel if somehow you could have prevented their death by slowing the spread of the virus by mandating social distancing measures and masks,” a student wrote to the board.

Many of the speakers in favor of the board’s proposal wrote about the physical and mental health concerns of children stuck at home, and raised concerns that online learning would have long term detrimental effects to their children’s education.

“My son had to be hospitalized in a mental health facility because of the mental health effects of prolonged COVID guidance and orders. The disruptive impact to our children is beyond what anyone is bothering to measure. I implore you to let our children socialize, learn, and develop normally,” wrote one mother.

“All three of my children suffered with distance learning. There were many tears shed in our home and frustration was at an all time high. My sons that typically get good grades were in the 60%-70%,” wrote another mother. “Having the children learn from home is not an option for our family because our boys will be home alone everyday. It is basically forcing them to be latch key kids with no supervision.”

Many of the concerns raised came from people who identified themselves as teachers or were worried about the safety of teachers. 

“‘Where can I get a living will?’ Is the number one question teachers are asking in Facebook groups,” wrote a retired teacher. “Lost learning is not good, but loss of life is worse.”

“What can I defend myself with- a pencil?” wrote a fourth grade teacher.

A number of the commenters vowed to vote against board members who advocate in favor of a reopening with no masks and no social distancing come the next election.

The last elections for the County’s board of education was in March of this year that saw Republicans hold on to a supermajority of seats. 

The next election is set for 2022, when trustees Mari Barke and Lisa Sparks will be up for reelection.

Written Public Comment Database – Half of Emails

Database of roughly half (2,097) of the total (4,259) emails received by the Orange County Board of Education in response to agenda item 2 on the July 13, 2020 public meeting regarding  recommendations for the fall 2020 school year amid Coronavirus. Emails have been randomly selected out of one folder containing all 4,259 emails. Voice of OC is working to convert and publish the remainder of the emails as soon as possible. The sentiment for or against the (at the time) draft board recommendation to reopen with no masks, social distancing or other such requirements has been discovered based on the content of each submission. View FULL SCREEN.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

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

Caitlin Bartusick is Voice of OC Deputy Digital Editor. Contact her at cbartusick@voiceofoc.org.