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A wave of Orange County elementary schools are trying to reopen classrooms for the upcoming school year during the coronavirus pandemic, after state health officials announced a waiver process earlier this week.  

Most of the schools looking to reopen are in South County, where the virus hasn’t hit residents as hard, compared to working class neighborhoods in Anaheim and Santa Ana. In addition, an overwhelming percentage of them are private or charter schools. 

OC schools were thrust into the national spotlight last month, when the OC Board of Education voted to recommend schools reopen without requiring masks or physical distancing. But the board’s vote has no bearing on schools and their respective districts. 

Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of UC Irvine’s Public Health program, said if the virus trends continue to go down, then schools should start planning for reopening classrooms. She also said schools should give learning options to students and parents, stagger class days and implement a robust testing and contact tracing program.  

“I think we’re in this place where we probably could start if our case numbers stay where they are or go down. Then we can start talking about what hybrid education really looks like. It does mean lower numbers, trying to do things outside. Staggering schools, giving a choice for some kids that can’t go … but they’re still engaging and having the proper education,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of UC Irvine’s Public Health program. 

But, Boden-Albala said, the reopens could depend on how severely impacted the surrounding community is, like the hard-hit neighborhoods in Anaheim and Santa Ana. 

“This is all about density. The densest communities are going to get hit the hardest” like Anaheim and Santa Ana, Boden-Albala said in a Tuesday phone interview. “You just have these populations in these cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana that are living more densely, as opposed to more of a suburban structure where there’s more space between households — where the transmission is less.” 

County health officials said last week the positivity rate in the hardest hit neighborhoods of Anaheim and Santa Ana is 18 percent, far above the counties 11 percent at the time. 

Middle and high schools will still have to start the incoming school year doing online classes only, according to state guidelines from the California Department of Public Health released Monday. Under the guidelines, only elementary schools and younger can reopen, while students in third grade or above must wear a mask. 

Over 80 different school organizations sought information about the waivers, and 26 filed waiver requests. 

Most of the schools that applied are religious private schools and charter school groups, along with several schools tailored to children with special needs. 

“Orange County is ready to help school administrators in need of assistance,” Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel said at a Thursday news conference. 

“We have received an overwhelming number of calls and emails from parents asking for their children to go back to school,” Steel said. 

But officials wouldn’t take reporters’ questions on the school waivers or if the interim county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau would approve reopenings. Chau and county CEO Frank Kim are expected to hold a news conference Friday to address the questions.

Instead, Thursday’s news conference was restricted to questions about a new program offering $1,000 grants for restaurants who have purchased cleaning supplies and protective equipment for their staff and are complying with public health protocols. Officials also indicated they are sticking with their policy to not publicly list virus outbreaks at local restaurants. 

Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 697 people out of 38,711 confirmed cases. 

UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said residents can expect 1,000 virus deaths by the end of the month. 

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 over the course of a full year.

Hospitalizations continue to decline, with 517 people hospitalized, including 171 in intensive care units. 

Just over 448,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.

The Orange County Public Health Agency, which ultimately has the final say on school waivers, has started accepting reopening applications but remained silent on when or if any of them will be approved. 

School reopenings could be halted depending on where the county’s virus numbers are. In the recommendations proposed by the California Department of Public health, schools in counties with a rate of 200 cases per 100,000 residents shouldn’t reopen. 

Orange County’s case numbers are currently unclear due to a reporting issue with California’s reporting system, called CalREDIE, that is holding up accurate counts across the state. 

According to county Health Care Agency documents, the only public school district listed as interested in applying for the school reopening waiver, as of Wednesday, was the Newport-Mesa Unified school district, which has over 30 schools that could potentially reopen if approved. 

But the district’s school board president Martha Fluor said the district never filed paperwork and isn’t interested in a waiver. 

“Our district at this point in time is focused on opening up on Aug. 24, providing all of our students with high quality education,” Flour said in a phone call with Voice of OC Thursday afternoon. “Our district has not applied for a waiver … we even announced it at our board meeting that we would not entertain it.”

In the documents provided by the county Health Care Agency, the names and positions of all those who applied for the exemptions are blacked out, and in some cases not even school names are listed for the applications.

Al Mijares, the Orange County Superintendent, said he expects that other public schools will begin applying soon, but that it would take widespread agreement among parents, teachers and other stakeholders before anything could move forward.  

“The question is can they manage to get everybody on the same page?” Mijares said in a phone call with Voice of OC on Wednesday. “I have not talked to one person who does not want to commence the beginning of school with everybody present. It’s just that we can’t until we can be sure that each student and staff member will be safe, and that’s the driving point here.” 

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Clarification: An earlier version of this story claimed that over 100 schools had filed waivers to reopen. An erroneous response to a public records request by the county Health Care Agency claimed those schools had all filed paperwork, but a follow-up from the HCA clarified they only sought information on reopening, and that just over 40 schools had officially requested waivers. 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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

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