The story has been updated.
Teachers at the Orange County School of The Arts are increasingly worried about plans to return to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic and the school board has disregarded their concerns in a situation that’s been similarly played out in other schools around OC.
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“I oppose the reopening of OCSA until an [memorandum of understanding] is crafted … and is voted on and approved by the OCSA members,” said one math teacher, according to an audio recording of last Wednesday’s school Board of Trustees meeting that was posted on the school’s website.
“Most classrooms would only be able to safely accommodate 10 students,” said another teacher.
Most of the teachers who spoke said they’re concerned about the lack of specifics in the plans and worry that students are going to lose instructional time through the proposed hybrid model. Others are worried about the lack of airflow in classrooms, a factor epidemiologists have noted increases the chances of spreading the virus.
The school is a public charter school focused on the arts. It was chartered by Santa Ana Unified School District until earlier this year, when OCSA switched to being chartered by Orange County’s Board of Education after a dispute with SAUSD over requirements the district imposed on OCSA.
Similar concerns over reopening have been playing out in other school districts across the County.
In the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, pushback from teacher and school principals over reopening schools led to district officials delaying a return to classes for middle school and high school students.
Despite similar pushback in the Capistrano Unified School District, the district pushed forward with their reopening plans.
Generally, case rates and transmission rates have been easing in Orange County. The case burden has eased to the point where churches, gyms, restaurants, schools, movie theaters and malls can bring people back inside.
“Does that mean we should rush to reopen? Absolutely not … the hybrid model being proposed is not the best model for our kids,” said one teacher
Ralph Opacic, who founded the school in 1987, said the administration has been communicating with the teachers and suggested there was a communication problem with the teacher groups.
“We have had our negotiating team meeting every wednesday since June and having these conversations,” Opacic said during the meeting.
“We’ve been working — I thought — collaboratively with faculty and staff for months.So clearly on the CTA side, the teacher’s side, there’s been a vacuum of communication — which is unfortunate,” he said.
Opacic also criticized the teachers campaign to push back against the school’s reopening plans.
“We’re receiving a flood of emails from parents that have indicated that there is an organized intimidation bullying campaign by teachers for kids who are thinking about coming back hybrid,” he said.
On Monday, Opacic responded to Voice of OC’s questions and said the school will have more detailed plans later this week.
“Over the past few days, we have been listening to all questions and concerns related to reopening with the utmost care, and are continuing to research possible adjustments to the reopening instructional model that will give the largest number of students, parents, faculty, and staff the arrangements that will work best for their unique needs. We hope to have more to announce later this week,” Opacic said in an email response to Voice of OC questions.
But teacher’s union President Marla Cross, who answered questions after she was done teaching, said there’s no required memorandum of understanding between the teachers and the board.
“We have to have an approved MOU before we can go back to work on campus,” Cross said in a Monday afternoon phone call. “They voted at the board meeting and have not even considered an MOU for hybrid learning.”
She also disputed Opacic’s claim of a teacher-organized bullying campaign.
“We had sort of a powerpoint slide deck that was approved by the admin to show students what hybrid could possibly look like,” Cross said. “So that’s what that parent was considering a bullying campaign, was the approved slide deck from the administration that showed what hybrid would look like.”
She also said the reopening talks were brainstorming sessions, and not concrete plans.
“He blamed that on us because the negotiating team has been meeting since June and the reopening team has been meeting since June, but everything was hypothetical. Nothing was concrete. We had no input on what they told people at the board meeting on Wednesday night.”
Opacic said nearby school districts are operating just fine and many of OCSA’s students want to return to classrooms.
“When we surveyed our families, we found that more than 40% of OCSA students have expressed their preference to return to campus in a hybrid/in-person learning environment. We are doing everything in our power to meet the needs of our constituents, while also ensuring the safety of faculty, students and staff,” he wrote.
An online petition is circling around calling for the Orange County School of the Arts to pay high risk teachers unable to return to campus.
“Many Teachers and Counselors… will not be paid due to their inability to provide their services on campus as they are high risk,” reads the petition. “This has to be stopped.”
The petition has garnered over 4,300 signatures.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,410 people out of 57,071 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
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 OC residents annually.
As of Monday, 168 people were hospitalized, including 63 in intensive care units.
Over 1 million tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people. Some people, like medical workers, get tested numerous times.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio