Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state legislature are pushing schools to begin reopening classrooms by the end of the month, or risk losing out on some of the $6.6 billion targeted to the reopening efforts.
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“We incentivize opening up our schools by providing real resources to do it. We expect that all of our [kindergarten to 2nd grade] classrooms open in the next month,” Newsom said at a Monday news conference.
The Governor said classrooms will reopen for more grades when counties hit the Red Tier — the second most restrictive tier in the state’s reopening system.
Orange County currently sits in the most restrictive Purple Tier and could soon be moving into the Red Tier if case rates continue to improve.
Newsom said the gradual phase-in of classroom reopenings will build confidence to open more schools.
“Going into Red Tiers, it’s [kindergarten to 6th grade], and it’s a commitment to one grade in middle school and high school. And our core belief is this: once you dip your toe in, once you build your cohort confidently, once you build trust, then we will start to see a cadence of reopening across the spectrum,” he said.
Last week, state officials started to benchmark 10% of all vaccine allocations for teachers, child care workers and various educational support staff.
The move sparked concerns from the Orange County Board of Supervisors at their meeting last Tuesday, who said the county’s most vulnerable and elderly need to be vaccinated first.
OC health officer and county Health Care Agency Director, Dr. Clayton Chau, told county Supervisors that the move shouldn’t hinder vaccinations to the elderly.
“I assure you that it won’t happen in Orange County,” Chau told Supervisors, adding that the county’s been able to increase the number of seniors vaccinated by 25% in roughly two weeks.
“I’m hopeful that every two weeks we’ll add another quarter,” he said.
Under the new reopening plans, if Orange County school districts don’t offer classroom instruction by the end of the month, they’ll lose 1% of their share of the $6.6 billion reopening grant for each day classroom options aren’t available.
Newsom said teachers don’t have to be vaccinated before reopening classrooms.
“We do not think vaccinations are a prerequisite to open the schools,” he said.
The move comes as some teacher unions in the state have pushed back against reopening classrooms in hard hit areas, while some parent groups have been calling on state officials to reopen the schools.
It also comes as a recall effort against Newsom has been gaining momentum, appearing to be gathering enough signatures to land on a ballot.
Newsom’s been hosting more news conferences over the past few weeks, including two today at an elementary school in Santa Clara County and at a vaccination center in Ventura County.
But today’s news conferences weren’t publicly streamed on the internet like they normally are.
Meanwhile, a contentious debate on reopening schools has not only engulfed Orange County, but the whole country over if and how students should return to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Last September, the state gave school districts the green light to reopen classrooms and most districts provided parents with choices on whether they’d like their children to continue with online learning or participate in hybrid classroom instruction.
But since in-person instruction partially resumed, teachers have raised concerns about safety, the cleanliness of classrooms and common areas, students not following safety measures, and the district dashboards for reporting cases.
Some private schools in the county have been open to students five days a week.
Williamson Evers, a senior fellow at the Libertarian-leaning Independent Institute based in Oakland, said schools should have remained open for students under 16-years-old.
Evers was also the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development from 2007 to 2009.
He said while some students have thrived under distance learning, others have suffered big gaps in learning.
Evers said students should take tests to show how much they learned during and school districts will need to put some children through summer school to fill those gaps.
“They need to be open to the idea that not every child in the class is going to be the same age because of this disruption,” Evers said
He acknowledged that it hasn’t been easy for teachers, but said for some the pandemic has meant a lighter load.
“The teachers unions are on a kind of quasi strike. Of course they are not calling it a strike, they’re calling it paying attention to public health concerns. But they’re really refusing to go back to work,” Evers said. “During the lockdown, they’ve been paid but they’ve been taught fewer hours. They haven’t necessarily taught on a regular schedule.”
Tamara Fairbanks, the president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, disagreed with Evers and said teachers have been working “triple time” reaching out to students to make sure they engage and talking to parents late into the evening with little time to prepare classes.
Newport-Mesa Unified School district is currently offering hybrid instruction — a mix of online courses and classroom instruction.
“The setup of many of these models have increased teacher workload,” Fairbanks said. “There’s nothing easy about it. You have to realize none of the teacher curriculum is geared for hybrid models or distance learning especially at the K-12 level. You have to modify everything.”
She said teachers are stressed mentally and physically and worry about their health, but they’re doing their best with the resources they have.
“I think everyone wants to go back to the classroom. I believe the issue is: are politicians going to give these public education institutions what they need and the infrastructure they need to actually be safe and I think that is the biggest argument right now,” Fairbanks said.
She said there is a different aspect to the issue that many people are not realizing that was taking place even before the pandemic.
“I think there were always safety concerns in our schools and I believe that it’s exacerbated since COVID and especially the difference between the haves and have nots. I believe the reopening of school discussion has failed to point out just how strong the disparities are,” Fairbanks said.
Meanwhile, coronavirus hospitalizations have been somewhat plateaued this week.
As of Tuesday, 425 people were hospitalized, including 116 in intensive care units, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 3,952 people, including 31 new deaths reported today.
That’s more than seven times the number of people the flu kills in Orange County on an average yearly basis.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively.
According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Orange County has already surpassed its yearly average 20,000 deaths, with 23,883 people dead as of December, according to the latest available state data.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.