As More Students Return to The Classroom, Questions Mount About Lack of Reporting

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Students outside at Carl H. Hankey School in Mission Viejo on Oct. 5, 2020. The Voice of OC is not aware of any cases of Coronavirus or exposures at this school.

As more kids return to the classroom, county officials are sticking to the policy of not reporting cases of the virus, leaving many concerned parents and staff with unanswered questions.

And mounting letters are being sent out about positive cases at schools without much context. 

For weeks, a host of teachers and parents have pushed back against the return to school with fears that a rush to bring students back to campus will cause a spike in cases. They have listed concerns that districts nor the county are requiring Coronavirus testing only recommending it. 

Some also worried how transparent districts and the county would be in reporting virus cases on campuses to the public. 

Some districts ultimately reopened anyway with support from teachers and parents worried about the effects long term distance learning on students.

Now — many schools have already welcomed back students and cases have started popping up as more students in the county prepare to return to the classroom. 

Capistrano Unified School District started to reopen their middle schools today and begin reopening high schools next week. Newport-Mesa Unified School District will allow 7th grade-12th grade students return next week.

Tamara Fairbanks, the president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said teachers want districts to be honest with them about cases on campus.

“People want to know, especially if there is a sick student on campus so they can take the necessary precautions, or the extra precautions so they can protect themselves and their families,” Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks said there is a concern from teachers that her district will not be transparent if there is a case on campus.

“We’re not sure what the district’s protocols are, as far as reporting that information to the community,” Fairbanks said. “If they do have a clear protocol. We haven’t seen that as of yet and they haven’t revealed that to that community as of yet.”

The district’s reopening plans state that the district superintendent or a designee will communicate with parents, students and staff about exposures and cases. They have left it vague as to who exactly will be contacted– whether it will be the whole school or just those in contact with the person who has the virus.

Many district plans are similar. Every district is working with the Orange County Health Care Agency when there is a report of a Coronavirus case.

When an exposure occurs on a campus, the County health care agency sends template letters to members of the school community vaguely informing them that a person with the virus was present on campus and they may have been exposed.

The letter instructs parents to monitor their children and employees to self monitor for symptoms of the virus for two weeks if they are deemed to be a low risk exposure.

“You do not need to be quarantined or do anything differently, but if you become feverish or develop any of the above symptoms, you should stay home and call your healthcare provider for advice,” reads the letter.

Voice of OC is aware of at least one letter already sent out about a person with the virus being present at San Juan Hills High School last week — before the Capistrano school even reopened.

That letter generally advised people at the school of a low risk from this exposure. 

A separate letter is sent out for people in close contact with the person who has the virus. It instructs the person exposed to quarantine for two weeks.

A close contact is generally someone who has been within six feet of the infected person for 15 minutes or more, Dr. David Nunez, a medical director for the agency, told the Voice of OC in an email response to questions 

“The primary focus is on quarantine for all close contacts, since they are at high risk of being infected with COVID-19, whether they have symptoms or not.  Low risk exposures are at low risk of infection, so quarantine is not indicated,” Nunez said.

In the Los Angeles Unified School district, a negative coronavirus result will be an admission requirement to return to school in person. 

LA County’s virus website also details outbreaks at schools, businesses, nursing homes and homeless shelters. 

Orange County isn’t doing any of that.

No school district in the county is requiring testing– only recommending it.

OC Public Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau previously said virus cases at schools would not be disclosed publicly by the county. The only impacts that would be reported to the public by the county would be either an outright school closure or outbreaks at school —but only if officials determine it affects the community at large.

“Schools are still in discussion with their counsel to determine how to communicate incidences of COVID-19 cases to the community. The OC Health Care Agency (HCA) is not reporting case counts for school-related cases nor identifying schools or school districts with reported cases. Volume of cases in schools to date has been low,” Chau said in an email response to questions last Friday.

There’s a website dedicated to reporting virus cases in schools across the country. It relies on self-reporting from residents, teachers and media reports in states, like California, that don’t mandate the public disclosure of virus cases in schools. 

One school district is doing what the County won’t.

The Irvine Unified School District is publishing the number of cases that occur at their schools on their Coronavirus dashboard.  In being the first to launch the dashboard, the district is being more transparent than County officials and other school districts who are not reporting cases on campus to the public.

The Irvine Unified School District is also doing optional free testing for its employees. An employee can get tested every two months or sooner if needed due to an exposure. There are also over 50 testing sites in the County that administer them for free.

Irvine teacher and parent Vadim Rubin said because testing is not mandated the dashboard is not giving the full picture of the exposures.

“I don’t think the dashboard really includes the information that this is based on self reporting, and parents and teachers volunteering reporting their testing, so I’m not sure how accurate it is. It makes it seem like there are no cases but it’s based on hundred percent self reporting,” Rubin  said.

“There’s not a clear picture that you can see both as a teacher, and also as a parent,” Rubin added. “You’re just going into a big unknown.”

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