The pandemic’s impact to classrooms across Orange County may finally be softening as local school districts have reported a drop in their absent rates.  

Attendance rates have improved in at least five local school districts, according to various school officials, although case counts remain relatively high and even increased in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified District.

Schools across Orange County had a difficult first few weeks back from winter break amid an Omicron surge that caused student absentee rates to skyrocket and left school districts scrambling to address staff shortages.

Despite feelings of frustration, exhaustion, fear, stress and being overwhelmed, schools carried on these last few weeks and now for some there is cautious optimism with the numbers slowly declining that the surge and the chaos it caused for schools may be coming to an end.

The decrease in absences comes as Orange County looks to be hitting the peak of the fourth COVID-19 wave that saw over 1,200 people hospitalized at one point, say local public health experts. 

[Read: OC Hospitals Wrestle With High Number of COVID Patients as Fourth Surge Might Be Peaking]

Impacts of the surge were noticeable from the very start of the semester with parents, teachers and districts reporting a significant number of people out sick from COVID at the onset.

Administrators and staff stepped up to substitute or fill in for people out sick. 

“I noticed it was quieter when I arrived on campus in the mornings. You could feel a smaller number. In my classroom, I have 36 desks and it felt like half of them were empty,” said Santa Ana Unified School District Science Teacher Shayna Lathus in a Tuesday interview.

She also said she keeps track of absences in her classroom and spoke at a Jan. 11 district board meeting, criticizing the district for not pushing back the school start date amid the surge or returning online.

“The highest number of absences I had was 30%,” Lathus said. “Today, 15% were absent.”

Santa Ana Unified School District

In a Monday phone interview, District Spokesperson Fermin Leal said absentee rates have improved since the return from winter break and are now around about 9-10%.

When classes resumed after winter break earlier this month, Leal told the Voice of OC that absentee rates for the district’s elementary schools went as high as 17% and usually hover around 3% this time of year.

Lathus questioned the quality of education the students received during the surge.

“In a science class, it’s really, really hard to teach content when it felt like half of the class were gone,” Lathus said. “When those students came back, it was kind of disruptive because everybody felt like we needed to catch them up on what they had missed. It’s been really chaotic.”

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

Last week, the district quietly took down their case reporting dashboard.

[Read: Santa Ana Unified Suspends Reporting New COVID-19 Cases in Classrooms]

Following a Voice of OC article, the dashboard went back up.

The district reported 1,412 COVID cases last Friday, which still stretches back two weeks and is updated every Monday.

This is almost double the 723 positive cases reported earlier this month.

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District

Absentee rates have fallen in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District dropped to 14% last Tuesday, according to Alyssa Griffiths, a district spokesperson. 

On Jan. 7, 18% of students were out.

But last week’s rate still remained above the average. 

“Comparatively, the absentee rate at this time during January 2020 was approximately 8%,” she said in an email.

Griffiths also said more teachers are back in the classroom.

The first week back from the break about an average of 13% of teachers were missing from the classrooms, dropping to about 9%, Griffiths said. 

When asked if the district had concerns about the quality of education students while teachers were out, she said that the district had anticipated the absences at the beginning of the year and prepared by hiring additional independent study teachers.

“While we prefer for our students to be with their assigned teachers, the district employs hundreds of highly qualified substitute teachers,” she said. “As they do in any given year, students identified to be in need of further support will receive differentiated and tiered instructional support to help close any identified learning gaps.”

Some OC parents are trying to gauge absentee rates on their own.

Caron Berkley, a Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School district parent, said she quizzes her kids when they come home from school to see how many people are missing from the classroom – kids and teachers.

“It seems like it’s declining in terms of the amount of kids that are absent,” she said in a Tuesday phone interview. “It does seem it’s slowing down a little bit.”

The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School district is reporting 1,148 COVID cases out of over 26,000 students and staff on their dashboard on Friday morning, which stretches back 10 days.

That’s down from the 1,300 cases reported on Jan. 14, but up from the 822 reported on Jan. 24.

Anaheim Union High School District

Anaheim Union High School District Mike Matsuda said the staffing needs have gone down considerably since earlier this month.

“Two weeks ago, we had 145 unfilled substitutes. We were short, so we were scrambling, but we’re down to 65 today and that’s very manageable because teachers can cover during their conference period,” he said.

At one point about 20% of teachers were out, Matsuda said, adding that the attendance rate is typically around 95-97%, but dropped down to about 88-90%.

“Knock on wood,” he said in a Tuesday interview. “We are definitely seeing a flatlining and a coming down of COVID in our district so that’s good.”

Anaheim Union High School District updates their dashboard on a weekly basis on Fridays.

Last week, the district reported 348 COVID cases.

For the week of Jan. 15 through Jan. 21, the district reported 786 COVID cases on the dashboard, down from the prior week’s 1,183 cases.

Capistrano Unified School District

In the Capistrano Unified School District, the average attendance rate for schools in the month of December 2021 was around 94%, according to the district’s dashboard on attendance.

In January 2022 the average attendance rate so far has been around 86%, according to the same dashboard.

Last week, Capistrano Unified district trustees unanimously passed a resolution at their board meeting in an effort to get more substitute teachers.

[Read: Capistrano School District Struggles to Get Substitute Teachers During Omicron Wave]

On Friday morning, the district’s dashboard showed 955 confirmed COVID cases out of 45,665 staff and students stretching back two weeks – a decline from Jan. 19’s 1,573 positive cases.

COVID Case Reports in Other OC Districts

Spokespeople for the Garden Grove Unified and the Irvine Unified school districts have yet to provide their absentee rates.

The Garden Grove Unified School District reported on their dashboard last Friday 1,667 cases out of over 44,000 students and staff on district campuses.

On Jan. 21 the district reported 1,706 confirmed cases on their dashboard.

Garden Grove’s dashboard stretches back two weeks.

In the Irvine Unified School District there are 1,062 positive student and staff cases out of 38,583 students and staff on district campuses stretching back 14 days, according to the district’s dashboard updated last Friday.

On Jan. 25 the district reported 1,334 positive student and staff cases on their dashboard.

That’s down from more than 1,600 earlier this month.

Meanwhile, OC parents and teachers have questioned the accuracy of district dashboards during the surge, saying the numbers didn’t match up to the empty classroom seats.

[Read: Parents Across Orange County Keep Tense Watch as School COVID Dashboards Soar]

Saddleback Valley Unified ended up taking down their dashboard over concerns of not having up to date and accurate case reports before Santa Ana Unified did.

Saddleback Valley officials have since brought a revised version of their dashboard back.

Wendie Hauschild, a spokesperson for the Saddleback Valley district, also said in emails Wednesday the absentee rate was going down and there were fewer staff absences.

In the Newport-Mesa Unified school district, Spokeswoman Annette Franco said in an email Wednesday COVID cases were dropping and student and staff attendance was improving although she did not provide exact numbers.

OC Schools During Omicron Surge

The last few weeks during the surge have reignited a debate that blew up in Orange County less than two years ago:

Should schools switch to online learning or keep classrooms open?

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

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state public health officials have made it clear that going back to online learning isn’t an option.

State officials sent COVID tests, which didn’t start getting to local school districts until days after many schools had already come back from winter break.

And they also shipped N95 masks to schools – but less than 25% of what the state promised, according to the Orange County Department of Education.

The California Department of Public Health also eased their guidelines for quarantining and contact tracing allowing for group tracing.

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

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