Saddleback Valley Unified School District nixed its COVID-19 dashboard because officials can’t keep up with the high number of new cases, sparking another flashpoint in Orange County’s debate on how to teach children during the Omicron surge.

“We regret to inform you that we have been unable to maintain accurate up-to-date reporting data,” reads the district website. “With a focus on our students, we have been funneling our District Office personnel resources to our school sites so that in-person student learning is not interrupted as we experience isolation periods of school staff members.”

“We will be removing the SVUSD COVID-19 Reporting Dashboard from our website at this time. Transparency and accuracy are values of ours and we do not want to share information that we know is not correct.”

Saddleback Valley Unified School District Website

District officials offered more information after this article was published.

Robert Craven, an assistant superintendent in the district, said in a Friday interview that the district does anticipate getting a modified version of the dashboard back up “shortly.”

“We will be having a modified version that shows the number that were positive on a single day, not differentiating between those that were on campus or not on campus, but just what was reported to us,” he said. “We’re working on that. We want to make sure that we have valid information and that it’s reliable.”

Parents are angry. 

Jackie Martin, a district parent, lambasted school officials for their decision to stop reporting cases on the dashboard.

“We’ve been aware of the fact that the online dashboard wasn’t in any way accurate. I felt like they were lying to us and instead of trying to update it, they just take it down,” Martin said in a Thursday phone interview. “What are we supposed to do as parents? Just cross our fingers and pray that our kids stay safe.”

She also questions the district’s transparency.

“I also feel like it’s less of a district going, ‘Oh, we can’t keep up with the numbers as much as it is, hey, we don’t really want you guys to see what’s going on here.’ I mean, what happened to the guidance where if a certain percent of the school tests positive then they shut down? I mean, that’s just gone away. It’s really shocking.”

It’s yet another chapter in the ongoing debate on how to best teach kids during Orange County’s fourth COVID surge – largely fueled by the Omicron variant.

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

The decision to nix the dashboard also comes as Orange County’s seen its highest COVID positivity rate yet, which was at 27.4% as of Thursday, according to state case data.

There were also 1,072 people hospitalized as of Thursday, including 168 in intensive care units, according to statewide hospital data.

Wendie Hauschild, a district spokesperson, said in a Friday interview the district’s primary focus has been student safety and keeping them in school amid a staff shortage.

“We’ve been utilizing our district office staff to help plug the holes, so to speak, in our schools, so that we have enough classified staff and, of course, our teaching staff, so that we can continue to provide an education to our students,” she said.

Craven said after winter break the district’s contact tracing team was working through an overwhelming number of positive cases, trying to notify families of COVID exposure amid changing guidance from the state and county.

He added that the district didn’t have the staff to maintain the dashboard and keep it accurate.

According to the Saddleback Valley website, there are 26,304 students enrolled and according to state data, the district was among the top 10 biggest districts in OC by enrollment in the 2020-21 school year.

[Read: Santana: People Deserve Better Public Engagement on COVID Data to Confront Omicron Surge]

Martin said stopping the dashboard is an indication that schools should go back remotely or take time off to stop transmissions.

“I know there was a lot of concern about kids being depressed about attending zoom school … But at the same time, both of my older kids have told me how depressing it is to watch what’s going on now and realize that they feel like nobody cares if they’re safe or not.”

Jackie Martin, Saddleback Valley Unified School District Parent

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.

Martin said the district hasn’t sent out tests yet and she’s concerned the schools aren’t doing enough to make sure students wear masks.

Out of precaution, Martin did not allow her child to go on a field trip to Los Angeles this week and said that tickets for winter formal are still being sold amid the spike.

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Parents like Alison Waite, a mother in the district, say they want schools to continue in person as long as they are able to do so – but with better pandemic preparations by school officials.

She said the district is leaving parents in the dark about the situation and there’s no leadership with clear direction on how to manage the surge and keep kids safe.

“What was evident in the first week back was that the district was woefully unprepared for the surge of cases, and there was no plan that was shared with the parents,” Waite said in a Thursday phone interview. “That’s the inexcusable part.”

She called the district’s decision to do away with the dashboard a “joke” and said they need to do a better job of communicating with parents.

“In the middle of the worst surge we’ve experienced, for them to just say too many to count is not acceptable,” Waite said.

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The Saddleback Valley decision to get rid of the dashboard comes as various school districts in the county are reporting hundreds of students and staff with positive Coronavirus cases.

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

Various districts in the county, like Santa Ana Unified, have had to deal with staff shortages since the return from winter break, some even using principals and counselors to fill in for teachers when needed.

Those districts’ dashboards are still up, despite the rise in cases and absences.

“Other districts seem to be doing just fine counting and I just don’t think that there’s an excuse that there’s too many they can’t publish the numbers … It’s an embarrassing reason to discontinue the dashboard.”

Alison Waite, Saddleback Valley Unified School District Parent

Craven questioned the accuracy of dashboards in other districts.

“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,” he said.

Newsom on Tuesday signed an executive order to address the shortages and ensure that schools stay open for in person learning. The order includes nearly $3 billion in funding in the 2021-22 state budget to recruit more teachers and staff as well as training.

Local health officials have warned that staff shortages might affect a district’s ability to continue to provide instruction in person.

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.

Craven said the district has no plans to switch to online learning for everybody because they have been able to move staff around to continue classroom learning.

“We recognize how important it is to keep the students in school,” he said. “We’re very happy that we’ve been able to do that, and we anticipate continuing to be able to do that by using our district staff, our other school site staff as well, to go out there and cover for our employees that are out.”

Some parents and teachers are questioning if schools should even stay in person right now as hospitalizations and cases increase.

The district is offering online classes, Hauschild said, adding that parents with kids attending school in person can switch to the virtual academy.

“But they would have to enroll for the rest of the year,” she said.

Other parents want schools to stay the course.

Waite herself said she’d be willing to volunteer to count the numbers at Saddleback Valley if it’s an issue of staff shortages.

“I want our kids to be able to stay in school and not have schools shut down because of massive infection rates and I think transparency with what’s going on is just really important.” 

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

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