This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.

Local school districts have been using online dashboards to inform Orange County residents of confirmed coronavirus cases on campuses.

But some teachers and parents say the official numbers just don’t add up.

Residents across Orange County have posted concerns over what districts’ criteria are for counting cases on the dashboard, with reports of off campus parties and unreported cases in school districts all over social media. 

The dashboards reflect confirmed cases of the coronavirus of students and staff learning at schools which depends on self reporting. There is concern that some parents are not reporting and concern that some people may not know they have it and continue to go to school.

The Orange County Health Care Agency has its own dashboard displaying the cumulative number of cases at schools from mid-August to early December. This is a shift of the agency’s initial stance not to report the cases at schools.

According to the agency, there have been 675 cases at schools in that timeframe with over 380 cases in November. Some data is missing from the week of Thanksgiving which will be reported in future updates.

While the county is publishing the numbers, California is one of eleven states in the country that isn’t publishing information about the coronavirus at the school level — which some health officials and lawmakers across the state are hoping changes, according to Politico.

The California Department of Public Health and Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, has said the recent surge of cases and the new stay at home order that accompanied them was not due to school reopenings or cases connected to schools, but some local officials don’t agree.

“If people are not reporting the most accurate data from the schools, how would they know?” said Tamara Fairbanks, President of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers Union. “I cringe when I hear public officials saying that, because they’re assuming that people are putting their best foot forward and testing children and they’re not and I think that’s the issue.”

School districts in Orange County do not require students to be tested for the virus, even if they have been exposed in the classroom, but ask them to stay home for up to two weeks following exposure. 

It is up to the family to decide if the student will be tested.

The Newport-Mesa teachers union recently expressed concerns with hybrid learning and their districts’ dashboard. Union leadership wrote a letter to the district asking for older students to return to distance learning.

“One of the major issues about the dashboard is that it is completely dependent on self reporting so because it is based off of people volunteering information, you don’t necessarily receive all of the cases,” Fairbanks said.

She added that some parents quarantine their children without reporting the case to the district.

Annette Franco, the public relations officer for Newport-Mesa Unified School District, says the data on the dashboard is accurate and reflects all the positive cases reported to the district.

She added that the district works collaboratively with the county health agency who provide them guidance on what to do with each case.

“In some cases, you’ll see at a school, maybe there is one positive case, but there’s five or six students not coming to school, that does not mean that they have COVID. There are a variety of other reasons why there are student or staff absences,” Franco said. “They could be quarantined for their own reasons of having traveled, they could be considered close contacts and out of precaution asked to stay home for a certain amount of time.” 

The district dashboard only reflects current cases, and those numbers can fluctuate as cases come off the dashboard after a ten day or two week period based on guidelines from the county health care agency. The same is true for other districts.

Like Newport-Mesa, the county health care agency works with each school district when a case is reported to help with contact tracing for each case and advise on how to inform parents. 

Fairbanks said the dashboards should also show the quarantine rates to give parents a better idea of how much impact the virus has in classrooms.

“Whenever I look at the dashboard, I just assume that we have twice as many kids that are positive then what’s on the dashboard,” Fairbanks said. 

Alyssa Griffiths, a spokesperson for the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, told the Voice of OC in an email that their dashboard will not reflect students and staff quarantining because of a potential exposure.

Griffiths added in the email the district is committed to being transparent with the community about coronavirus cases while maintaining people’s confidentiality.

“My concern with the dashboard is that it won’t ever really reflect accurate numbers. It’s hard to tell what an accurate number count would look like. We have a lot of students that are home sick,” said a teacher in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified school district.

Dashboard concerns have also popped up in the Los Alamitos district, Capistrano Unified and other districts as well. Voice of OC has received multiple tips that the dashboards aren’t the full story of the cases at schools.

Ryan Burris, a spokesperson for the Capistrano Unified School District, has not responded to requests for comment. 

Los Alamitos Unified School Districts was one of the first districts to open up in the county through a waiver. Superintendent Andrew Pulver said they inform and reach out to school communities when a case occurs through letters and update the dashboard regularly.

“I guess there’s skeptics out there but our dashboard reflects any confirmed case of COVID-19 that has been reported to us, of any students, staff or even substitute employee who has worked while they could have been infected,” Pulver said.

Schools in the district will continue to remain open under the new stay at home order. 

“All of our cases thus far we’ve not been able to identify a transmission through school so in some ways, you could probably argue that schools are one of the safest places with all the precautions that we have,” Pulver said.

The number of cases at Los Alamitos High School are causing some people to raise concerns on social media. As of Tuesday afternoon there were 23 cases at the high school, according to the district’s dashboard.

“We’re in an outbreak at our school,” said the Los Alamitos High School parent. “But if we close, the parents are going to lose their crap and I think that’s why we’re not, because they don’t want to deal with this. And they don’t care. And they don’t believe it.”

Noah Biesiada contributed to this article.

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

 

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.