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The oddest start to the school semester is underway in Orange County following a ferocious debate over how classrooms should reopen amidst a global pandemic.


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School districts have been planning for months what the academic year would look like, struggling to find a balance between safety and a return to normalcy as new information on the Coronavirus emerges almost daily.

Last month the Orange County Board of Education called for a return to classrooms without masks or social distancing, igniting a fierce debate over school reopenings that drew reactions from across the country. The debate has also sparked a discussion on the role schools play in the lives of students and their parents.

Over 4,000 emails were sent into the county’s board of education from parents, teachers, educators, students, medical professionals and community members on their recommendations.

However, elected officials never gave the thousands of people who wished to comment a chance to sound off before they approved their recommendations. Instead they 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. 

More than a month later, the board still has not published the emails on their website, which they are required to do under the Brown Act. The only information published by the board is a list of the commenters’ names.

Pacific Drive school in Fullerton on Aug. 6, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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. Hundreds of readers responded to a Voice of OC survey about whether the nonprofit news agency should publish local voices on the issue. 

Earlier this month the Voice of OC released about half of those comments. Now after weeks of combing through thousands of emails, staff has finished reading through all the comments and have published them to amplify those voices in the community.

Here’s a look at the database of emails. 

4,261 emails were received and sent to Voice of OC from the Orange County Board of Education in relation to the recommendations of school reopenings– 21 of which were duplicates. Voice of OC reporters were able to go through 99.5% of those emails which are included in the database below.

Overall, 73% of the emails in the database were against sending kids back to school without masks and social distancing, about 15% were for and roughly 12% did not have a definitive stance on the board’s reopening recommendations.

Here is a sample of those voices.

Parents

1,268 emails came in from people who identified themselves as parents with school aged children. 1,000 were against reopening schools without masks and social distancing, 142 were for it and 126 did not take a stance.

“Please listen to the parents who are struggling to keep their children’s mental health above water. They long to go back to school. It’s their escape. Their sanctuary away from home. It’s so important to them,” one parent wrote in favor of the board’s recommendations.

“My heart is breaking just thinking of the prospect that someone else’s baby will not be safe because they cannot afford to avoid your policies,” another parent wrote into the board. “As a mother, I cannot fathom making the decision to either work and provide food on the table for my family or knowingly send my child into a dangerous situation.”

Teachers

441 of the people who emailed in the board identified themselves as teachers currently employed at a school. 364 of those teachers were against opening up without mandating social distancing and mask wearing, 32 were in favor and 45 did not have a definitive stance on the matter.

“Yes, masks in classrooms will be VERY hard, yes, social distancing will be extremely difficult. But to not even try? Reckless, and scary,” a teacher wrote in opposition of the recommendations. 

“I don’t want to die,” she added.

One of the teachers who wrote in support of a return without social distancing and masked shared a correspondence he sent to his students.

“I feel you got cheated…. I feel angry that I could not continue to provide you with the education you all deserve…. I feel sad because I realize how much I missed you guys,” he wrote.

An elementary school in Anaheim on Aug. 12, 2020.

Students

62 of the people who emailed into the board identified themselves as students with 58 against a return to school with no masks and no social distancing. Three of the commenters were not definitive on a stance.

“Many of us live with babies or seniors in our homes who are at a significantly higher risk than us,” one student wrote in. “Please believe me when I say that I would rather live than have to risk my life in order to learn how to do calculus.”

One student wrote in favor of the board’s recommendations stating that with the distractions at home she did not learn as much doing distance learning as she would have had she been in the classroom with her teacher. She also spoke against mandating masks.

“It just isn’t good for your students ‘ well-being. We need to be on campus,” she wrote.

Medical Professionals

85 emails came in from people who described themselves as medical professionals with 70 of them wanting masks and social distancing requirements. Seven were for a normal reopening of schools and eight of them did not take a definitive stance.

“The lines outside the emergency departments of Orange County are not fictitious propaganda—they are the truth about the devastating effects of this virus. Don’t send our teachers and students back to school,” one physician wrote in.

One nurse who also identified herself as a parent said she was 100% comfortable opening schools without social distancing, without masks and at normal classroom capacity.

“We need to get back to life. Our kids need to get back to school. The last half of the last school year was pretty much a waste,” the nurse wrote.

School busses parked in Fullerton on Aug. 7, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Written Public Comment Database

Database of 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. CLICK HERE to see Voice of OC’s database of our transcribing of the in-person comments given at the same Board of Education meeting. 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.

OVERVIEW OF DATABASE

FULL DATABASE

Database below, or you can view FULL SCREEN.

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

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

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