Questions have risen about how schools and the Orange County’s Health Care Agency will respond to a student or school employee getting sick on campus with classroom reopenings set to take place at many districts in the weeks to come. 

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Many county classrooms have been vacant for months now — left empty in response to a global pandemic that has consumed the lives of almost a million people worldwide.  A return to the classroom will look different than any other school year with desks spaced apart and students wearing masks. 

Even with precautionary measures in place some people fear a reopening of schools will lead to another spike in coronavirus cases and more deaths. Opposition is mounting against resuming in-person instruction in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and the Irvine Unified School District over safety concerns and what critics call “ambiguous” reopening plans.

Orange County school districts have said in their plans that they will work with the county’s Health Care Agency to determine what to do if someone tests positive for the virus on a case by case basis. County officials have told the Voice of OC that every school is required to immediately inform them of any coronavirus cases on campus.

Districts will be sending home individuals with symptoms. Those who have COVID-19 or were in contact with anyone with a confirmed case must quarantine for 10 or more days and wait till symptoms subside. The area where the individual was in will be closed off and cleaned and disinfected after a day, according to the plans of school districts in the county.

Orange County, which is home to 3.2 million, has 28 school districts that serve hundreds of thousands of students.

The Health Care Agency has established a response team of nurses to help schools do contact tracing. County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau did not specify how many people were on the team when asked by a Voice of OC reporter at a Thursday press conference but described it as robust.

The Orange County Department of Education and the state Department of Health is not recommending requiring a negative test prior to a return to campus for anyone who has tested positive for the virus. Instead the departments recommend a return after 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared and one day with no symptoms at all.

It remains unclear in many school districts’ reopening plans where students and staff can be tested, or if they will be required to take a test at all. Many districts in their return plans published online only recommend – not require – testing if someone is showing symptoms or if they have been exposed to a confirmed case.

There are over 50 testing sites in the County that administer them for free.

“We have made a conscious choice to make our testing sites available for all school personnel, especially because they are now listed as essential workers, especially for those who are symptomatic as well as those who have been exposed,” Chau said at the conference.

In the Los Angeles Unified School district, a negative coronavirus result will be an admission requirement to return to school in person. A website will also detail coronavirus outbreaks at individual campuses and classrooms, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times

Reporters pressed Chau at the news conference on Thursday if his agency would do the same.

“From a communicable disease perspective, as a health officer, information would only be public if it affects the public. If the information does not affect the transmission of the disease in the public, there’s no need for the public to know. And [that’s] what we were informed by law as it relates to communicable disease.”

Asked by Voice of OC if that means he believes some school outbreaks do not affect the public at large, Chau said that’s yet to be determined.

“When you have a condition – measles, what have you – you only disclose when it’s appropriate and when it affects the community,” Chau said. “Again, as far as [it] is related to the schools, I am having a constant conversation with schools. I have to work with school districts and also with school legal counsel, and also with county counsel. So the final decision has not [been] made yet. So be on the lookout.”

Some districts have said in their plans that letters will be sent to school communities if there is a coronavirus case. Other districts have highlighted in their reopening plans that they will only notify those potentially exposed to the virus.

“Per the direction of OCHCA, the Student Services designee will only notify students, staff, and families who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 to self-monitor for symptoms, and follow state and local guidance if symptoms develop,” reads the Tustin Unified School District’s reopening plans.

If outbreaks occur they could merit a school closure. Chau did not answer a Voice of OC reporter’s question on what factors would warrant such a closure.

State guidance recommends that if 5% of a school contracts the virus in a two-week period, it should be closed and districts will close completely if a quarter or more of their schools are shut down in a two-week period. The same guidelines say Chau can close schools for other reasons as well.

County school districts are allowed to resume in-person instruction as early as Sept. 22 with some restrictions.

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

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