As OC Districts Reopen Schools this Week, Questions and Petitions for Delay Mount

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Turtle Rock Elementary in Irvine on Sep. 17, 2020.

As a host of Orange County schools start welcoming back students today, there are mounting questions from a growing number of teachers and community members about how such reopenings – and potential outbreaks – will be handled. 

Fountain Valley School District – with over 6,300 students – is opening its elementary schools today. 

Cypress School District, with 3,900 students, opens Wednesday for hybrid instruction after the County denied their waiver to reopen earlier because it lacked support from school staff.

Tustin Unified School District and Irvine Unified School District – covering 60,000 students together –  will start the process of reopening elementary classrooms on Thursday with the greenlight from the state.

County officials on Monday afternoon held an abrupt half hour briefing on Zoom. At the briefing, Orange County’s top public health official acknowledged that residents have lots of questions, concerns about reopening schools.

“If the parents or the teacher have any concern about the reopening plan, they can contact us and complain — for lack of a better word — and we did have several from the public and anonymously from teachers, and then we did follow up with the school and the school district, and we did find resolutions,” said OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau.

Chau did not specify which districts those were and said most concerns were misunderstandings between parents and the district. However many questions still linger over the specifics of some districts’ plans which critics have called vague.

There are also parents and teachers who are eager to see students back in school. Those who have contacted Voice of OC have expressed concerns about the inequities caused by distance learning and the effects long term virtual education has had on students’ mental health.

“Our teenage children are the most susceptible to anxiety and depression from being isolated from their peers and no social interaction,” one teacher wrote to the Voice of OC. “There is zero excuse to deny our children in person school. I have a 15-year-old who is now on depression and anxiety medication due to school closures and isolation.”

Questions have risen about how transparent schools and the Orange County’s Health Care Agency will be with the community if there is a confirmed case of the Coronavirus on campus. 

On Monday, in response to Voice of OC questions about outbreak reporting to the public, Chau said that has yet to be decided. 

“We’ll continue the conversation this coming Friday,” Chau said. “(Los Angeles Unified School District) decided that they will post on their website all the positive cases — of course it’s aggregate not by name — and so the school districts in Orange County, they’re all aware of that. There’s a continuing conversation here to come.”

Some schools have already opened through a waiver process with the state and the county. The waiver required support from school staff to be approved now it will be up to districts to decide on when and how to reopen classrooms — some of whom are moving forward with the return process despite pushback from some members of the community. 

Opposition to reopening schools has popped up in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, Irvine Unified School District and Saddleback Valley Unified School District with fears that a rush to bring students back to campus will cause a spike in cases. 

Petitions are circulating around parts of the county to postpone a return to the classroom at this time. 

“We teachers have the same goal to return to normalcy that the greater community has. We have the same goals to improve the learning experience for all of our students as our administrators, district staff, and board members have,” reads the Saddleback Valley petition.

“We strongly believe that the path to reach said goals is vastly different than the direction we are currently headed.”

Teachers have been behind the petitions with support from some community members and feel their districts are not taking their input on reopening plans. They have expressed concerns with the quality of hybrid instruction, with safety, and testing procedures.

All districts have invested heavily in online learning because of the pandemic in an effort to provide technology and hotspots to students in need. Some are holding off on returning to campus.

The Garden Grove Unified School District announced last Wednesday it will not be reopening for in-person instruction in October as originally planned and will remain online till further notice. The announcement was made on the heels of parents calling for more specific plans for reopening.

Capistrano Unified School District’s Board of Education will be meeting on Wednesday to consider a phase in plan for resuming in person instruction and activities for the high school level. 

Board member Amy Hanacek wrote on Facebook that she will not support the addendum to their reopening plan and requested that it be taken off the agenda.

“The last thing anyone needs or wants is another divergence from a voted upon plan – your educational choices have been made and those choices must be honored,” Hanacek wrote. “The fortitude of any organization depends solely on the quality of its leadership – if “therein lies the rub” then that can be attended to, and not off the backs of the students, community, teachers & staff.”

Noah Biesiada contributed to the article.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him [email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.