Spiking COVID-19 cases in Orange County and throughout California – driven by the Omicron variant – are raising questions about how local and state officials should handle schools as hospitalizations continue increasing. 

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Gov. Gavin Newsom and state public health officials have repeatedly said online learning isn’t going to be an option anytime soon. Instead, efforts have been made to get more testing and masks to school districts throughout the state, although the efforts to get tests to OC experienced delays.

But for parents, teachers and staff throughout the Golden State, the school debate basically boils down to two questions: 

Should schools continue having students in classrooms or temporarily switch to online teaching until the fourth wave dies down? 

“They’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place. We got cases that are spiking, we got certain age groups who aren’t vaccinated yet and you got to consider that testing hasn’t really been accessible,” said Richard Carpiano, a public health scientist and sociologist at UC Riverside.

In a Tuesday phone interview, Carpiano noted that online learning works for some families, especially if the parents have the ability to work from home.

But, he said, the approach strains families who don’t have that option.

“Some parents need to go to work, so there’s the issues of needing to send kids to school and daycare … but even in working from home, they’re sending their kid to school and if they come back home and could possibly infect their families,” he said, adding the current surge will disproportionately hit working class families hard.

“It always hits lower income the worst, basically any crisis hits them the worst,” Carpiano said, noting working class communities have already suffered the brunt of previous waves.

In Orange County, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the Latino community.

[Read: OC’s Latino Community Remains Behind on COVID-19 Vaccines One Year Later]

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Gina Clayton-Tarvin, president of the Ocean View School District as well as a teacher in Los Angeles county, said in a phone interview Wednesday schools should stay in-person and many kids are returning to campus from quarantining.

She added the state has made it “almost impossible to go to fully online school”.

“The funding isn’t really there,” Clayton-Tarvin said. “If we wanted to shut schools, we could potentially lose funding and that’s just something that school districts can’t take a gamble on.”

The complex situation, Carpiano said, shows a disconnect between school districts, local and state governments, and the hospital system.

“It’s starting to become a bit of a flashpoint between school systems and government as we’re starting to see the cases are really spiking, the test numbers are going up … The health system is saying we’re strained, so we can’t just be thinking about schools as a separate system from our healthcare system.”

Richard Carpiano, a public health scientist and sociologist at UC Riverside.

As of Wednesday, 1,071 people were hospitalized in OC, including 169 in intensive care units, according to state data

Those are numbers not seen since last year’s winter wave, which saw nearly 2,200 people hospitalized at one point. 

Clayton-Tarvin said kids should be required to wear medical-grade masks and not the cloth ones. She also said kids should also wear masks outside when they’re bunched together.

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Mari Barke, a trustee on the Orange County Board of Education, said in a phone interview Wednesday that deciding to keep students in classrooms or temporarily reinstate online learning should be up to parents and the local school districts.

“There’s some parents that absolutely would like to keep their children home doing virtual [learning]. There’s other children that we know suffer more by not being in school,” she said.

Sanghyuk Shin, a public health expert and epidemiologist at UC Irvine, said state officials need to rethink their approach to schools during the surge.

He said schools should be given funding to temporarily switch to online learning in school districts serving the hardest hit areas throughout the state.

If the schools did temporarily go remote, Shin said a massive public outreach campaign should be held by public health officials, coupled with community based organizations, in an effort to vaccinate more people in hard-hit communities.

“Poll after poll shows that in communities of color, people who are not vaccinated are willing to be vaccinated if their concerns are met … I do think that public health interventions such as remote instruction could bide that time to reach these communities.” 

Sanghyuk Shin, a public health expert and epidemiologist at UC Irvine

Although fully vaccinated people can still get the virus, data shows the shots significantly reduces their chances of developing severe symptoms and being hospitalized.

According to the OC Health Care Agency, 87% of all the county’s hospitalized patients are unvaccinated.

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Meanwhile, some parents want to stay the course.

Hengameh Abraham, a Costa Mesa parent, said classrooms should stay open because kids need social interactions and students didn’t learn as well during the pandemic at home.

“It is extremely unfair for kids that have gone through kindergarten, first grade, or even preschool during the pandemic, two years ago.”

Hengameh Abraham, Costa Mesa Parent

She also noted in a Wednesday interview that many of those kids now find themselves behind in school.

Abraham added that she understands there needs to be safety precautions and parents should keep their kids home if sick.

She also said that she pulled her child out of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in September over the mandates, especially the mask mandate and over the quality of education her child was receiving. 

“We have been homeschooling since September,” she said of the switch, adding “I feel like we have been homeschooling since March of 2020.”

The debate comes as some school districts in OC are dealing with hundreds of newly confirmed COVID cases since winter break ended. 

[Read: Some OC School Districts Have Hundreds of Confirmed COVID-19 Cases After Winter Break]

Grace Hobbs, a parent in the Newport-Mesa Unified district, also wants to keep classroom learning going.

“First of all, the loss of schooling that the children had last year did not make any sense,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Hobbs called the precautions in place “ridiculous” and said some parents have been trying to get the district to push back on mask requirements and the expected vaccine mandate like other districts have. 

She also expressed concern about potential side effects the vaccine may have on children.

Experts and public health officials have also been urging parents to get their kids vaccinated, holding online panels to address parents’ safety and effectiveness concerns from the vaccine for kids 5-11 and argue COVID itself presents a bigger risk than the vaccine. 

Public health experts like Carpiano and Shin warn that unchecked virus transmission could overwhelm hospitals and delay non-COVID procedures – like what was seen during last year’s winter wave.

Orange County is also experiencing its highest COVID positivity rate seen during the pandemic, so far.

As of Wednesday, the county sat at a 28.2% positivity rate, according to state data.

Carpiano said, regardless of how severe or mild Omicron infections might be, it’s still rapidly spreading – faster than previous variants – and putting people in hospitals.

“People are still getting hospitalized, including kids and more people getting infected. This is the paradox of it – you have more opportunities for cases, for things like hospitaliations and strains on the system,” he said.

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Other parents want classrooms open, but with stricter virus precautions amid the surge like requiring masks outside and weekly testing mandates.

Some aren’t sure if they should send kids to school or keep them at home – like Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District parent Caron Berkley.

“I’m really torn because I feel terrible, sending them off to school every day and knowing that there’s a risk with them being out there and a surge. But they need the academic learning, they need the social and emotional growth and it’s just like Sophie’s Choice for parents right now.”

Caron Berkley, Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District Parent

Berkley also said districts need to ensure kids are wearing appropriate masks and need robust testing.

Residents throughout OC have reported difficulty in finding timely tests.

[Read: School Absences, Anger in OC as Hunt for COVID-19 Tests Turns Up Fruitless For Many]

Shin said schools need to double-down their efforts on safety measures, like upgraded ventilation – as well as a massive push from state officials to give free or subsidized rapid testing and high-quality masks to students.

He said multiple studies, including some conducted by UCI, show the virus poses a far greater risk to Latinos than other communities.

“Latino populations have up to a 50% higher risk of being infected,” he said. “Young people bring back infections to the household where often multi-generational families live under one roof and there are limited opportunities to isolate and quarantine. So these are … families who are at high risk of being exposed to COVID compared to affluent communities.” 

Shin added, “These are the communities where schools by and large are poorly ventilated and with overcrowded conditions where COVID-19 can spread very rapidly.” 

Other OC parents like Vinnie Morrison want schools to go back to remote learning for at least a couple weeks.

“We keep seeing every single day an email from the principal saying, ‘hey, one or more students tested positive,’” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“If we had a temporary return to remote schooling for even a two week period …  I believe you’d see a lot more flattening of that curve rather than the vertical spike of cases that instills fear into my heart.”

Vinnie Morrison, Parent

Morrison said his entire household has tested positive for COVID, including his two-year-old daughter who still can’t get vaccinated.

“It’s a roll of the dice whether or not it’s going to be the one that sends her to the over-impacted hospital,” he said.

Some teachers also want schools to shift online temporarily and have started a petition to go back online temporarily in the Santa Ana Unified School district.

“We did a year and a half of remote learning so if we had to go for like, a week or two, I think that our schools have the capacity to do it,” said Mike Rodriguez, a Santa Ana Unified School District teacher said in an interview last week.

“It’s about keeping our students safe, keeping our staff safe and keeping our community safe.”

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

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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