We have been your lifeline during the pandemic, economic fallout, wildfires, protests and the election. Support us with a tax-deductible donation.

The Santa Ana Unified School District will not be sending students back to classrooms this year, marking a full year of online learning for one of the largest school districts in California. 

As Orange County’s hardest hit city by COVID-19, Santa Ana is the only city in the county not to send students back to the classroom for a portion of the 2020-21 school year. 

Most OC districts have opened in what’s called a hybrid system, where students spend part of the week on campus and the other part working independently online — an idea district staff said they rejected at the Santa Ana Unified School District Board meeting Tuesday night. 

The board ultimately didn’t vote on the decision after staff gave board members a presentation that stated it was safer to continue their current model. 

District staff were able to make the decision after the board directed them last year to review a hybrid option or an online only option.  

“We will not be entering into a hybrid approach to instruction and will stay the course,” said Lorraine Perez, deputy superintendent of educational services. 

The only students allowed back in classrooms are there for learning labs, a system that’s slated to put disadvantaged students who are falling behind in a classroom under supervision where they call into their Zoom lessons. 

District staff said they would be expanding that program to at least 3,000 students by April 12, or roughly 6% of students, but it could grow further with new CDC guidance calling for three feet of social distancing in schools. 

Perez said those numbers were generated based on six feet of social distancing, and they could grow with the CDC’s new recommendations of three feet. She also added most classrooms were ready for learning lab installation moving forward. 

Sports are also expanding in the final weeks of the school year, with some indoor practices resuming next month and district staff said there will be some activities for high school seniors on campus ahead of their graduation. 

By refusing to reopen, the district is also passing on nearly $16 million in additional state funding.

But according to staff, the schools have never been better funded. 

According to Manoj Roychowdhury, assistant superintendent of business services, the district has already received $135 million in coronavirus relief and is anticipating a further $180 million.

While none of the board directly challenged the decision to keep students home, board members John Palacio and Valerie Amezcua pointed out how many families were moving their kids to the surrounding districts for classroom learning and called on staff to expand the learning labs. 

“All the districts around us are opening, or they’ve been open,” Amezcua said. “When (constituents) call me, they say you’re the only one close in my area. I live in Santa Ana but you’re not opening up, I’m leaving.”

“You have to do what’s best for your child.”

Both said the reopening should’ve been slow, but the reopenings should have ramped up as infection rates continued to drop. 

“I do think we need to do more. I’m not excited about 3,000, that’s a very small number,” Palacio said. “We need to not live in the past of our plans, but to adjust. These are evergreen plans, they need to adjust to change.” 

The vast majority of public commenters asked for online learning to continue, pointing out that after spring break, there were only seven weeks left in the year.

There were a few voices calling for an option to return. 

“Santa Ana is one of the last districts to decide,” said one commenter. “I ask the board to listen to the parents of the children you are here to educate. Give the parents a choice!”

Board president Rico Rodriguez responded to the parents who called on a return, saying he empathized with their struggle. 

“I know this is not the ideal situation for all families … and as a parent myself, I am also conflicted, but I feel as a district we’re moving in the right direction,” Rodriguez said. “I really believe we cannot go to hybrid instruction over the next couple of weeks.” 

Parents were not surveyed about what their thoughts on a return to the classroom would be, but staff said further surveys would be going out after the meeting. 

Superintendent Jerry Almendarez said they were worried about inspiring “false hope” by asking for ideas for potentially reopening classrooms, which is why they chose not to send out a survey.

The total number of students returning to learning labs was never established by staff, but they said they would expand to aid as many students as possible. 

“If we have 5,000 students that need that support, we want to meet the need,” Perez said. “I wouldn’t want to put a number to that … because if there continues to be a need, then we can keep growing.”

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

Have an opinion on this story? Join the conversation… In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join the open conversation on our Facebook page. Message us via our website form or staff page. Send us a secure news tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.