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The role of schools has been a hot topic in Orange County over the last year, as parents, educators and students debated what a safe return looked like amidst a global pandemic. 

Depending on where you live, the schoolyard is a different reality: while many students have been back on campus for months, communities that were hit hardest by the virus are still debating a return to in-person learning. 

Orange County became a national battleground for that debate early on in the pandemic, when the county board of education approved a report calling for a return without masks or social distancing. That vote sparked a massive debate among parents over what safety protocols should be put in place, forcing schools to offer a variety of options. 

All 28 of Orange County’s school districts came up with different plans for their vision of school in a pandemic, and as numbers improved similarities started to emerge. 

Most families are given two options: stay online, or return to a hybrid model where students split their time between on campus and online learning. The specifics of each plan vary widely between districts and grade levels, but they all guarantee students at least some time on campus. 

Since August of last year, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported over 3,300 confirmed cases of coronavirus at school, including just over 2,000 student cases. Only one person under the age of 17 has died. 

Santa Ana Unified, one of the few districts that chose not to return since classrooms closed last March, is going to discuss the issue on Tuesday, where district staff will advise them not to return according to department spokesperson Fermin Leal. 

With the city’s coronavirus numbers plummeting, the board still has the option to send students back to classrooms but Leal says he doesn’t think the vote will go that way. 

“The board approved a road map way back last summer, and that road map includes the return to school phases in the hybrid model,” Leal said in a phone call with Voice of OC Friday afternoon. “For primary grades it would be two days on campus and three days a week remotely and for higher grades it would be one day a week and four days remote.”

If board members choose to keep students online for the rest of the year, he says the district will expand their on campus “learning labs,” small groups of students on campus who need wifi connectivity to participate in class. They still participate in virtual learning on campus under the supervision of instructional aides. 

Anaheim, one of Orange County’s other hardest hit cities, is split down the middle on who gets to go back to class. 

The Anaheim Elementary School District approved a return date of April 9 according to a letter posted on the district’s website, but the Anaheim Union High School district will remain online for the remainder of the year after their school board members voted 4-1 to stay virtual. 

Meanwhile, other large districts in south OC have been back at schools for months, with thousands of students back in classrooms and online options for families concerned about a return to in person learning. 

According to their online dashboards, Irvine Unified and Garden Grove Unified have well over 10,000 staff and students back on campus, mostly at elementary campuses. 

Capistrano Unified, the largest district in Orange County, has nearly 30,000 people back onboard and even offers a 100% in person option for elementary students, spending half the day with their teacher and the second half learning with a supervisor. 

Other districts have walked a line down the middle, returning with small in person groups and moving back and forth between online learning and hybrid models depending on covid numbers. Many north Orange County districts returned to in person learning and stepped back after a spike in infection rates during the holiday season and returned in 2021. 

Santa Ana will make a decision for the rest of the school year on Tuesday, as other districts prepare plans for the fall stretching from fully online to fully in person. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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