Scores of staff and students at various school districts in Orange County have tested positive for COVID-19 following the winter break, according to local district dashboards.
Based on the county healthcare agency’s COVID dashboard for schools that goes back to Fall 2020, the number of confirmed cases at schools now are higher than they have ever been.
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Yet the tallies don’t show on the county’s dashboard, which currently only reflects two COVID cases at schools last week. Despite that, a Voice of OC review of numerous local school district COVID dashboards shows they are posting significantly higher numbers.
Among two of Orange County’s largest school districts – Santa Ana Unified and Capistrano Unified School Districts, Voice of OC counted more than 1,000 COVID cases in staff and students.
OC school districts plan to continue holding classroom learning across the county amid the COVID surge.
Some parents and staff are voicing concerns that students may be catching and transmitting the virus at school. One group of Santa Ana teachers is circulating a petition to go back online for a few weeks during this surge.
Other parents are OK with in-person learning but want their district to up the mitigations for COVID by requiring upgraded masks, face coverings outside or weekly student testing.
Meanwhile, other parents have been showing up to local school board meetings speaking out against wearing masks and an expected statewide vaccine mandate for students to go to school in person.
On Tuesday night, Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District trustees were supposed to consider a resolution against the state vaccine mandate for in-person attendance but ended up adjourning their meeting within minutes after some members of the public refused to wear a mask.
However, state and local school officials say online is no longer a viable option for K-12 schooling. Local colleges are shifting to online early this semester due to the virus.
The case surge at local schools comes amid a nationwide shortage of virus tests and shortages in district staff.
[Read: School Absences, Anger in OC as Hunt for COVID-19 Tests Turns Up Fruitless For Many]
To address shortages, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on Tuesday allowing more staff flexibility to support schools continuing to stay in person including lowering barriers that delay the hiring of qualified substitute teachers.
Close to 800 Anaheim Union High School District students tested positive for COVID, according to the district dashboard last week.
“All hands are on deck,” Superintendent Mike Matsuda said in a Tuesday phone interview.
There’s almost 31,000 staff and students on district campuses.
Matsuda said the district is using internal staff members to cover teachers who are out, adding that the district is used to “operating in crisis mode” and online learning isn’t really an option without state support.
In recent news conferences, state officials also have indicated they’re not considering a return to online schooling.
“Our decisions are coordinated with the county and the state and as of now, the state is not indicating that that’s really an option. It has to be pretty, pretty severe,” he said.
Orange County’s school cases come as COVID is skyrocketing throughout Orange County, with a positivity rate sitting at 27.8%, according to state data.
That’s higher than last year’s winter wave, when nearly 2,200 people were hospitalized at one point in January 2021.
Yet this time around, there’s less people in the hospital.
As of Tuesday, 1,013 people were hospitalized, including 159 in intensive care units, according to state data.
The Anaheim Union High School District campus with the most confirmed cases was Cypress High School with 83 new student cases and 7 staff cases during last week, according to the district dashboard that is updated weekly.
Matsuda said districts would have to get local and state permission to go back to online learning temporarily and it would be based on a district’s capacity to hold classes.
“That’s going to come down to how many staff and students become infected. There’s no magic number there,” he said. “We have a plan – system in place to ensure that there’s adequate coverage for students in school.”
“I don’t think any district wants to go back to distance learning at this point.”Mike Matsuda, Anaheim Union High School District
In a weekly Friday news briefing hosted by the OC Health Care Agency last week, deputy health officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said the decision to switch to online learning is up to the school districts.
“There’s no indication for our local schools to close, although that may rapidly change depending on the situation. As with most industries, if the schools have a shortage of staff and are not able to give in-person education that may affect their ability to continue on with in person,” she said.
Chinsio-Kwong also said schools can still be a safe place.
“I think kids will just have to be very careful during their times outside of the classroom to minimize transmission. Of course it’s still a possibility,” she said.
“Will there be a time where some schools may have to close because there’s an outbreak? Yes, there will be, but we’re hoping that we don’t close all schools all at once, because we know that there is benefit for the kids to be amongst other kids and learn in person.”
Meanwhile, colleges throughout OC have shifted to online learning for the first few weeks of the semester like Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine.
In the Santa Ana Unified School District, there are a total of 723 students and staff with confirmed cases of COVID, according to the dashboard updated Monday.
Some teachers in the district have started a petition calling for Santa Ana Unified to return to online learning for a couple of weeks until the surge passes.
The petition has garnered over 200 signatures and also calls on the district to replenish staff COVID sick days.
“The best way to ensure that SAUSD doesn’t spread COVID-19 and to prevent further mutations of the virus is to move to remote learning,” reads the petition.
District spokesman Fermin Leal said in a Tuesday phone interview that Santa Ana Unified is not currently considering going back online.
“Obviously, if health and safety wise, there would be a need to close a school, we would do that,” he said. “But our current plan is to keep our schools open and do everything possible to make sure that our students are healthy and safe while they’re in school.”
Some teachers in Oakland, including students, are also calling on their district officials to temporarily shift to online learning in an effort to keep the virus from spreading more, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In Newport-Mesa Unified School District, there are over 500 students and staff with COVID, according to their dashboard with around 20,000 staff and students in classrooms.
“Absolutely, we are seeing much more cases than we had before but to put it in a little bit of perspective, it’s two and a half percent of our total population at this time,” said Annette Franco, a spokesperson for the district.
In Huntington Beach Union High School District, there are also over 500 students and staff with confirmed cases of COVID, according to the district dashboard updated Monday with around 17,600 staff and students in person.
In that district, the school with the highest number of cases was Fountain Valley High School with 131 students with COVID and 15 staff members with COVID.
Like in other districts, Huntington Beach Union is also facing a staff shortage and
Hayley Berbower, a spokesperson for the district, said the officials are working to make sure classes are covered.
“Our goal is to keep our students in-person learning. It’s the most effective way to learn,” Berbower said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We’re doing everything that we can to keep in-person learning.”
Santa Ana Unified and Newport-Mesa are also facing staff shortages, but district officials say they have been able to keep classes going as normal.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep those classes operating as normal as possible. So we’re having principals, we’re having counselors, we’re having basically anyone with a teaching credential fill in, when we don’t have substitutes,” Leal said.
Meanwhile, some parents on social media are questioning exactly how schools are reporting cases on their online dashboard and if they accept at home test results.
There’s no statewide standard on how school districts report COVID dashboards or how they track positive cases.
That means there’s a scattershot of approaches to virus case reporting.
Berbower said in the Huntington Beach Union High School District that for a case to be listed on a dashboard, a student or staff member has to test positive for the virus through an antigen or PCR test.
In Santa Ana Unified, the district holds weekly test sites at every school. The positive cases are recorded on the dashboard for about two weeks. If a student or staff member tests positive elsewhere and reports it to the district, those numbers are included as well, Leal said.
In Newport-Mesa, parents report to the school if their child tests positive while there is a number staff call to report if they are positive. Cases are reflected on the dashboard for 10 days, Franco said.
In Anaheim Union, staff and students report testing positive to the district through a Google link. The dashboard is updated every Friday, according to LeAnna Williams, director of Risk Management for the district.
Last week, about a half dozen local parents from different school districts reached out and shared their concerns with Voice of OC about their kids going back to school after winter break amid an increasing COVID positivity rate in the county.
Some said districts should require negative COVID tests for students and staff to come back. Others said schools should return online temporarily.
[Read: With Students Back in Class after the Holidays, Covid Concerns Again Take Front Seat Across OC]
Yet back when schools were holding classes remotely during the pandemic, other parents strongly pushed for a return to classrooms, citing concerns of mental well being and the quality of education kids were receiving isolated at home.
Last month, the state Department of Public Health promised to provide at least one test for every public school student in California through their districts, with about 460,000 expected for OC students.
But not even half of those tests arrived in the county last week and when about 42% of tests did arrive, it was days after many students returned from break.
The county received 256,420 more tests from the state on Tuesday.
“The new shipments are expected to fulfill the state’s commitment to provide a testing kit for every public school student,” reads a press release from the County’s Department of Education.
Public health experts and researchers have repeatedly said testing is a cornerstone of the pandemic response, along with preventative measures like masks, physical distancing and vaccines.
Alana LeBrón, a UCI public health professor who researches public health inequities, said testing efforts need to be ramped up.
“We definitely need to shore up testing and we need to have those test results available – honestly – in 24 hours. So people can be notified,” LeBrón said in a phone interview on New Year’s Eve.
Since the start of this past holiday season, residents have reported long wait times to get tested or that they can’t find available PCR tests.
Some rapid testing kits can cost residents more than $100.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.
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