COVID dashboards at schools across Orange County are showing positive cases soaring so fast that one local district last week temporarily shut theirs down with a top official there questioning the accuracy of other school dashboards.

Saddleback Valley Unified School District temporarily removed their dashboard last week because they said they couldn’t keep up with the volume of positive cases – amid a staff shortage which other districts across the country are also facing since the winter break.

After Voice of OC coverage of the dashboard shutdown on Friday morning, district officials brought it back online. 

Amid the district’s experience trying to keep their COVID dashboard accurate, Robert Craven, a Saddleback Valley district assistant superintendent, questioned the accuracy of other district dashboards.

“Looking at those, I don’t know that those are actually accurate dashboards, we could have left ours up and have it be inaccurate but we didn’t feel that was doing a service to the community,” Craven said in a Friday interview.

[Read: Saddleback Valley School District Angers Parents by Ending COVID Dashboard During Surge]

He isn’t the only skeptic.

With hundreds of thousands of kids going back to school across Orange County, local social media posts and interviews with parents across the region indicate many are questioning the veracity of school district dashboards.

Many say the numbers on the COVID dashboards don’t match the number of empty seats at local classrooms.

“It’s probably a much higher number than what is appearing, because there’s already students and staff that are absent that are not getting tested on a weekly basis,” said Yuri Lara, a parent and teacher in the Santa Ana Unified School District in an interview Sunday.

She also said staff is being overworked right now and there is fear among staff and students. 

“I see my colleagues, administrators and teachers, we’re all so tired because we’re having to step in to do the work of missing teachers, of missing colleagues,” she said “I mean, it’s kind of like what happens when you overwork anything, I mean, overwork a machine – it’s going to give out.”

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Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, deputy public health officer for the County’s health care agency, said in a Friday press call that schools are not required to have a dashboard.

“Maintaining a dashboard on a website is up to each individual employer, school, college. And while it is encouraged, it is not a requirement,” Chinsio-Kwong said.

Given the increase in cases, there’s even questions about the accuracy of the county government’s own COVID dashboard.

For example, on Monday morning, Orange County Health Care Agency’s school dashboard showed zero cases at schools last week despite districts themselves reporting significantly higher numbers. 

At the same time the county reported zero cases at schools, five districts reported over a thousand cases.

Responding to reporters’ questions, Chinsio-Kwong acknowledged it takes the county health care agency a while to hear back from the school districts on the numbers they’re seeing.

Yet one Twitter account called @OCcovidkids is tracking the numbers on the dashboard and posts almost daily report summaries of what the COVID numbers look like at local school districts.

According to the Twitter account’s summary of Friday’s numbers compiled by the account, there were 13,501 active student and staff cases at OC public schools that are reporting which they said was an increase of 1,858 cases from Thursday’s summary.

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

Garden Grove Unified is reporting 1,045 positive cases as of Friday out of the over 44,000 students and staff in person, according to their dashboard.

Anaheim Union High School District is reporting 1,183 positive COVID cases according to the district’s dashboard last updated on Friday.

University High School in Irvine on Sep. 17, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

In the Irvine Unified School District there are 1,649 positive student and staff cases, according to the district’s dashboard as of Friday. 

This is out of the 38,583 students and staff on district campuses, according to the dashboard.

Annie Brown, a district spokesperson, said in an email Friday the recent surge in cases was expected by local and national health experts following winter gatherings and an increase in testing.

“Schools are also experiencing a temporary increase in positive case reporting, which reflects spread in the community,” reads her email. “We are closely monitoring this situation and local health conditions, while implementing effective mitigation strategies such as universal masking, enhanced ventilation, standalone air purification units, case tracking, cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and COVID-19 testing (both PCR and rapid antigen).”

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Given the spike in numbers, Brown defended the accuracy and timeliness of her district COVID public reports, saying officials had focused appropriate resources to ensure accuracy. 

“We have five people in our Education Services Department dedicated to supporting school staff, in addition to a staff person on our IT team dedicated to vetting numbers for the dashboard, along with our nurses, who are working late into the night most nights. Combined with our school site staff, who are working on the ground tirelessly, our incredible IUSD team has literally been working around the clock to help ensure case numbers are updated within 24 hours of them being reported to us and confirmed,” she said.

Naz Hamid, a parent in the Irvine Unified School District, said the number of cases are so overwhelming and the process of contact tracing takes so long that data on the dashboard is outdated.

“The notifications from families are speedier than they are through the district so when the district data is updated, it’s old. It’s not that it’s not accurate. Every single number reported on there has been verified. It’s just that the verification is taking so long to be almost useless,” she said.

Hamid acknowledged that an incredibly high burden and stress has been placed on teachers and administrators and hopes parents will be patient with them.

“It’s not that they’re not doing something that they’re supposed to do. They just don’t have the resources to do what they’re supposed to do and that’s why things are taking so long,” she said in an interview Sunday.

Chinsio-Kwong offered reporters Friday a general explanation for the spike in her eyes, saying that as she looked back at previous surges, transmission typically happened outside of the classroom during recess or when people gathered amongst friends.

That left her to conclude schools are safe. 

“Schools still are one of the safer places for children to go especially if we enforce universal masking indoors with a higher grade mask,” she said.

She also said cases will be higher in areas where people are not following COVID precautions or where vaccine rates are low.

“If there’s a higher case rate in a specific school, it is likely because either the students are not more closely following the guidance that we have all been recommending, or perhaps, there needs to be more enforcement on the campus by staff administrators.”

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In Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, there are 1,308 students and staff members who have tested positive for the virus, according to the district’s dashboard as of Friday.

This is out of 26,046 students and staff members according to that same dashboard.

Last week, Placentia-Yorba Linda School District Board President Carrie Buck adjourned the board meeting within minutes because some members of the public refused to wear a mask.

At that meeting, trustees were supposed to consider a resolution against the state vaccine mandate for in-person attendance.

On the same day of the Placentia-Yorba Linda meeting last week, some parents held a protest outside one of the district schools over mask requirements, 

Alyssa Griffiths, spokesperson for the district, has yet to answer Voice of OC questions regarding the protest, the district dashboard or the proposed resolution.

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Meanwhile, Capistrano Unified School District – the biggest OC district by enrollment according to state data – has a dashboard showing 1,687 confirmed positive cases out of the 45,646 students and staff members on district campuses as of Monday.

District Trustees on Wednesday are expected to discuss and vote on a resolution supporting local decision making when it comes to COVID-19 safety protocols at their 7 p.m. meeting.

In October of last year, Capistrano Unified trustees passed a resolution to try and get Gov. Gavin Newsom to rethink the expected student vaccine mandate worried that the requirement would drive students away from traditional K-12 schools and weaken the state’s public school system. 

Other districts like Ocean View have done the same as scores of parents have shown up to school board meetings calling on elected officials to take a stand against the mandate.

The Capistrano Unified School District also sent out an email last week to district families informing them of revisions to the quarantine and isolation guidance for COVID-19 positive cases and closed contacts.

“This new guidance comes from the Orange County Health Care Agency and California Department of Public Health, and it shortens the amount of time that a student needs to quarantine or isolate at home for COVID-19 if specific criteria are met,” reads the email from district spokesman Ryan Burris.

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The Orange County Department of Education has highlighted the changes in a press release on Thursday.

“Previous directives, including guidelines for masking, ventilation and hygiene, remain in effect,” reads the release. “State health officials noted that California’s multi-layered approach to COVID-19 mitigation have proven to be effective.”

As part of the guidance, students who are vaccinated and boosted and are identified as close contacts do not have to quarantine or test if they do not have symptoms.

It also allows for an alternative approach to contact tracing by letting schools send letters notifying groups of parents of children who spent a total of 15 minutes in a day’s time with a contagious person as opposed to trying to identify individual close contacts.

“Everybody is so overwhelmed with so many cases – we definitely welcome the new guidance provided by the state to help with the group tracing rather than individual tracing,” Chinsio-Kwong said. 

The change in guidance is happening amid ongoing debate on how to best teach kids during Orange County’s fourth COVID surge – largely fueled by the Omicron variant.

Some parents want schools to stay in person but want districts to increase precautions while others who want schools to stay open have been pushing back on some of the precautions in place like masks.

Others want a temporary shift to online learning.

[Read: Classroom or Online Learning? Orange County Debates How to Teach Students During Omicron Spike]

An empty playground at Franklin Elementary during the Covid-19 closures of Santa Ana Unified School District schools on March 18, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Some Santa Ana Unified teachers want schools to shift online temporarily and have started a petition.

A small protest was held outside the district office on Friday afternoon calling for a one week closure of schools and to require testing before students come back.

“We’re not out of the woods yet but I think local school districts are trying to act like we are,” said Mike Rodriguez, a district teacher who attended the protest, in a Friday interview, adding that about 15 people showed up.

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But 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.

Rodriguez said he understands it’s the state decision but says a lot of staff and students are absent from the classroom with other staff members having to fill in for teachers who are out.

“All of our parents and our families in Santa Ana there have been many that, the trauma is still real – of the pandemic and what the Coronavirus has done to many families,” he said. “We’re not ready to go back to business as usual, we need to keep public health in mind.”

Santa Ana Unified School District – the second biggest district in the county by enrollment according to state data – last week showed 723 positive student and staff cases on their dashboard.

The district serves some of Orange County’s hardest hit communities by the pandemic.

District Spokesperson Fermin Leal did not return a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Laguna Beach Highschool on July 29, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

One of the county’s smaller districts, Laguna Beach Unified is showing a significant proportion of staff and students with COVID on their dashboard.

Out of around 3,000 staff and students in the Laguna Beach district, there have been about 267 people with COVID in the last two weeks, according to the district dashboard updated on Friday.

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

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