Questions and concerns from teachers and parents over Coronavirus spreading at schools are once again taking center stage in Orange County as many students make their way back this week to the classroom following winter break.

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The concerns come after hospitalizations in OC doubled last week amid a winter surge.

[Read: Orange County’s COVID Hospitalizations Double in a Week]

They also come as many school staff in at least one district are reportedly calling in sick as a lot of OC students returned to the classroom Monday.

Santa Ana Unified District Spokesperson Fermin Leal said in a Monday phone call that while they are still accumulating attendance counts for students many staff have called in sick.

“Anecdotally, we have been hearing that a lot of our school sites do have a lot of staff who are either in quarantine or just called in sick so we are trying to try to cover those positions,” he said. “Schools have been reporting higher than normal staff absence, or staff shortages.”

Leal said that the goal is to keep schools open and as safe as possible.

“There is no discussion to close any schools at this point. However, we might send entire classes home if there’s a high number of students with positive cases,” he said. “We might just have that class be remote for like a week.”

According to Leal, the district hosts a test clinic at all their schools once a week with staff required to test. Students need permission and consent from parents to be tested for Covid.

“We’re at about 90% for consent so we’re pretty much hitting almost all students at this point,” he said.

The district has also been hosting vaccine clinics.

Leal also said it’s important for students and staff to know what the symptoms of Covid are and to stay home if you feel sick.

Other districts like Irvine Unified and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District are also calling on parents to keep their children home from school if they are sick.

That approach has put a premium focus on getting test kits to families so kids and parents can adequately monitor when COVID infections happen. 

Yet while kids are already back at school this week, the test kits from the state have yet to arrive. 

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Hundreds of thousands of Coronavirus rapid home tests for students are expected to make their way to local school districts this week after most Orange County kids are already back in the classroom.

However, taking a test for Covid-19 is not a current requirement for students to return to school, although state health officials are encouraging students to take a test before going back to the classroom.

The state’s department of health announced last month that they will be providing 1-2 tests for every public school student in California through their districts.

“The idea is that families will be given the chance to pick up the kits and test their children at home. As of Sunday afternoon, supplies were said to be en route to the Orange County Department of Education, where they’ll be sorted and collected by district staff,” reads a press release from Orange County’s Department of Education.

In an email Monday, Nichole Pichardo, communications manager for the department, said they are still waiting for the around 460,000 kits to arrive from the state with about 21,000 of those allocated for charter schools.

“Weather is said to be a factor and it sounds like other Southern California County Offices of Education have yet to receive their kits as well,” Pichardo said in response to why the tests have yet to arrive.

She said in a phone call Monday that when the tests do arrive the county office of education will serve as a distribution hub where districts can come and pick up their allocation of the tests to be distributed to the students.

State officials also confirmed that the delay was caused by recent storms and said tests were also sent out to schools before the break.

“California preemptively sent approximately 2 million at-home COVID tests to 3,000 schools across the state, and many schools sent students home from Winter break with COVID tests in hand,” according to an email from the California Department of Public Health.

School districts are expected to notify families when the tests become available.

According to a Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District press release, Orange County’s Department of Education is expected to receive the tests Tuesday or Wednesday this week.

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Prior to the break, the district announced in a statement they’re quarantining a whole sixth grade class at Travis Ranch School due to a high number of students testing positive for the virus or being in close contact with someone who has.

Placentia-Yorba Linda district’s Covid dashboard shows there are 40 students and 16 staff members with confirmed cases of the virus as of Jan. 3. The district does not show the previous case counts for previous days on their website.

The Irvine district said in a press release that it is still waiting on the test kits from the state but have available free saliva and nasal test kits for staff and students for pickup.

The district expects that with more testing their dashboards will reflect a higher number and according to them 80% of Irvine residents 12 and older are vaccinated.

They also state that health officials argue that schools are not a source for Covid-19 surges.

“The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the Orange County Health Care Agency continue to state that schools are not the source of COVID-19 surges due to effective, multi-layered mitigation strategies,” according to the Irvine district.

The district’s Coronavirus dashboard has not been updated since Dec. 17 and also does not show previous reports as time goes on.

While Covid tests are not mandated, students and staff are required by the state to wear masks indoors. 

All school staff are also required to show proof of vaccination or get tested weekly for the virus across the state.

 A vaccination requirement for students is expected to go into effect after the FDA fully approves the shot for kids.

[Read: State and Local Health Experts Move to Vaccinate Kids Ahead of Expected Winter Surge]

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Health experts and officials have also been urging parents to get their kids vaccinated, trying to reassure parents of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine for kids 5-11 and argue COVID itself presents a bigger risk than the vaccine. 

Despite those calls, there have been some parents who  have been showing up to local school board meetings calling on their elected officials to push back on the expected vaccine mandate for students to attend classes in person.

In turn some local school boards, like Capistrano Unified and Ocean View are passing resolutions to the state to try and get Gov. Gavin Newsom to rethink the mandate worried that the requirement would drive students away from traditional K-12 schools and weaken the state’s public school system. 

Back when schools were holding classes remotely during the pandemic, some parents pushed for a return to in person instruction concerned for the mental well being and the quality of education kids were receiving isolated at home.

The Orange County Board of Education even tried to sue the state to allow students to go back in person but the lawsuit was denied by the state supreme court.

Schools were given the green light to reopen in person back in the Fall of 2020 amid concerns from teachers and parents back then as well.

Some districts delayed reopening, while others pushed forward with reopening plans.

Many school districts don’t have virus dashboards that run the full course of a school year, showing historical data on infections. 

But Orange County’s Health Care Agency does and it’s data shows that during Winter months the number of reported confirmed cases for students shot up while numbers in Spring and Summer were lower.

Today, in Orange County, about 42,000 kids between the ages of 5-11 are fully vaccinated, while more than 157,000 kids between the ages of 12-17 are fully vaccinated, according to the OC HealthCare Agency’s dashboard.

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

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