Orange County School Districts’ Plans to Reopen During Coronavirus Pandemic

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A school in Huntington Beach's Oak-view neighborhood on July 17, 2020.

After Labor Day weekend, school districts in Orange County may have the green light to open up classrooms once again and allow students to return to in-person instruction during a global pandemic.

Over the summer, districts built plans on how to best reopen schools come fall, after a semester that forced teachers and students into virtual classrooms with just days of preparation and few resources.

But all plans had to be put on hold while Orange County sat on the state’s coronavirus watchlist. Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order, counties on the list could only reopen elementary schools with waivers from the state, and middle and high schools could not open at all. 

The county’s case rates fell below the required 100 cases per 100,000 residents on Aug. 23, starting a 14 day countdown on returning to school options opening up. 

Then last Friday, Newsom updated guidelines on reopening, placing Orange County in the most severe rank that would stop schools from resuming in-person without a state-approved waiver. 

After a series of tweets over the weekend from the county health care agency that left many confused over when schools could reopen, late Monday evening it announced that OC schools could reopen on Sept. 22 with the state’s blessing.

Orange County has been at the forefront of the national conversation on education after the county Board of Education posted a controversial report calling for a return without the use of masks or social distancing. 

But as the board gears up to sue Newsom over school closures, focus has shifted to the 28 individual districts that will ultimately make the final decision on how students return. 

Most districts are leaving the decision to parents, with many offering an option to return part-time or even five days a week. However, some districts have opted to remain fully online for the foreseeable future.  

Orange County residents have split opinions on the issue, with many calling for continued online learning and stringent safety measures while others protest the mandate of masks on campus and question the quality of online learning. 

Schools districts have revamped virtual instruction following these concerns, aided by over $350 million from the state to enhance online learning. Districts have also invested significant resources in personal protective equipment, thermometers and sanitation devices for a return to classrooms.

Over 40 different schools, mostly private institutions, have already obtained waivers from the state to restart in-person instruction, but now middle and high school students could return to class as well, as the state previously restricted any returns to sixth grade and lower for counties on the watchlist. 

Carden Hall private school in Newport Beach on Aug. 6, 2020.

The Voice of OC examined a variety of plans from across the county to see what those reopenings would look like. Here’s an overview of those plans.

Capistrano Unified, Orange Unified, Irvine Unified, Garden Grove, Fullerton and Westminster school districts will all be looking to offer an option for in-person instruction five days a week at the elementary level. High schools will have an option for hybrid instruction.

The districts’ plans outline requirements for face masks with some exceptions, as well as social distancing. 

These districts are also looking to offer a hybrid option for students and continue the virtual option for those not comfortable with returning to school.

Parents in the Fullerton School District must choose which option they want for the child before Sept. 4 or they will be enrolled in the hybrid model. Parents who chose the five day in person instruction model must sign a consent form acknowledging the risks.

As part of their plans, some school districts are recommending families screen for symptoms like a fever of 100.4 or higher, shortness of breath and loss of taste or smell at home before sending their children to school. Some districts will be checking the temperature of students and staff.

Desks will be 6 feet apart in the classroom and face the front. Many of the plans don’t specify  how many students will be in a classroom and instead base it off how many desks can be spaced out. Irvine Unified School District is allowing up to 30 students in a classroom with plexiglass around the desks.

Tustin Unified, Saddleback Valley Unified, Fullerton Joint Union, and Huntington Beach Union High School districts are offering a hybrid once allowed to start in-person instruction. Virtual options will continue for any parent who wants to continue online.

“We have sent out a survey to parents to let them know they can have the two options. One, continue with distance learning which we started on Aug. 13 or they can send their children back to school part time,” Mark Elliot, a spokesperson for the Tustin Unified School District, told the Voice of OC in a voicemail.

These districts will also have requirements for face masks with some exceptions in place as well as social distancing. 

Not all districts have decided to resume in-person instruction.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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

Santa Ana Unified, Anaheim Elementary and Anaheim Union High school districts — located in the two high density cities that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic — have not decided on a date of return to school with case rates in these cities still high.

“We’re closely monitoring our zip code and local data, which when you disaggregate it is  much higher than the county aggregated data,” said Anaheim Union Superintendent Michael Matsuda. “I think it would be irresponsible for us to open given those types of numbers.”

Matsuda said the district is waiting for the case rates to go down and for it to reopen in-person instruction in 2020 will depend on how responsible reopening is in the county and if there are measures in place like contact tracing and quick testing responses.

“We’ve already seen if you’re sloppy about it, it’s going to spike up again,” he said. “I’m really concerned about the sloppiness of how we reopen and the rush to reopen without all of these measures in place.”

According to county Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau, if the county’s numbers surge following  schools reopening, all schools that have already reopened would not be forced to move back online — only those that see a spike in case rates.

“We don’t necessarily have to close the school down, we just have to work very closely with the school and the state,” Chau said at a news conference in early August. 

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.