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It’s been almost a year since students in Santa Ana – the city with the most coronavirus cases in Orange County – have been back inside a classroom.

But if the Santa Ana Unified School District doesn’t reopen classrooms for kindergarten through second grade students by the end of the month it risks losing out on portions of $6.6 billion from the state as part of a push from Gov. Gavin Newsom to reopen schools in California.

The Santa Ana Unified School District’s Board of Education will have to decide if it will offer students a chance to come back to the classroom after learning online since March 2020. The item is not on the agenda but the board could discuss the issue at its Tuesday meeting.

A decision to reopen would mean around 10,000 students in a district of 47,000 could possibly be back in school, according to Fermin Leal, chief communications officer in the district.

There had been over 44,000 cases of the virus in Santa Ana as of Tuesday, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“We have to take into account kinds of issues specific to Santa Ana, like our local transmission COVID rates, whether we’re going to consider vaccinations as part of reopening,” Leal said. “Just logistically kind of how this is all going to work.”

Santa Ana Unified Board member John Palacio said in a phone interview recently that there are a lot of moving parts to take into account with Newsom’s push to reopen schools.

“The governor and the state make broad announcements but the devils in the details and the conditions,” Palacio said. “For some communities, it’s not as complex. In our case many of our families are living in overcrowded conditions, they don’t have access to health care. There’s many more essential workers.”

Last week the county announced it will begin vaccinating school employees from 3:30-8 p.m. on weekdays at specialized locations run by its department of education.

Other school districts in the county have opened in some shape or form while some like Santa Ana have not.

“Our communities have not had the luxury of working from home,” Palacio said. “It’s very different than if you live in South County (where) many of the individuals are working from home and they still have access to health care, they still have their jobs. They didn’t lose their benefits and lose their income, where many people in our community did.”

The School Reopening Debate

In September 2020, the state gave school districts the green light to reopen classrooms and most districts provided parents with choices on whether they would like their children to continue with online learning or participate in hybrid classroom instruction.

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 opened to students five days a week.

In the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, some parents have been demanding that students return full time too.

“The most pressing concern that this board and this entire district should have is resuming the full time on campus education for the children of this district who need it. Not everyone

is thriving right now,” said a parent at the district’s board of education meeting in February.

Trustee Leandra Blades has taken to Facebook to call out the Association of Placentia-Linda Educators which she claims has been pushing against a full return to the classroom. 

Other people in the county have also pointed the finger at teacher unions as well.

Tamara Fairbanks, the president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said teachers are not blocking education as they have been continuing to instruct students throughout the pandemic whether they’re physically in the classroom or not.

She added that teachers want to instruct their students in-person and want the best for all of them.

“Teachers have to advocate for their own personal safety and that’s what I witnessed from many of the districts in our area that they have to advocate for their own personal safety because the community may have a different interest,” Fairbank said in a phone interview.

Will Some Santa Ana Students Be Able to Return?

Leal, the chief communications officer, said in a phone interview that the Santa Ana Unified School District should know more about reopening schools Tuesday.

“We have a school board meeting … and our board will likely talk about this issue and whether they want to be a part of it and accept the additional (state) funding or whether they might feel differently and believe that it’s better for us to go our own way,” he said.

Leal added that the district had already been prepping classrooms for a month to adhere to necessary safety protocols hoping to offer an in-person summer school program to all students. 

“A lot of our schools are kind of in different stages of being ready to go but we are close. If we needed to reopen, there wouldn’t be that much more additional work we’d need to do,” Leal said.

Currently there is no reopening date target, he added.

The district’s board of education is set to meet March 9 at 6 p.m.

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

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