Concerns and questions surrounding a rise in COVID cases and monkeypox outbreaks are mounting as schools throughout Orange County begin the new academic year. 

Nakia Best, a UCI nursing school assistant professor who works on an advisory group to schools, said in a Thursday phone interview that there may be an increase in COVID cases with the return to school.

“People have been all over. I don’t know if we’re going to see a surge. I think if we take the measures we need to, it will not be as bad,” she said.

Best said those measures include hand washing, wearing masks indoors – even if they’re not mandated – and getting vaccinated. 

The statewide mask mandate for schools ended in March.

Her comments came the same day the Center for Disease Control and Prevention eased COVID guidelines – including lifting quarantine requirements for people exposed to the virus.

Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, also said he expects a rise in COVID cases as kids go back to school.

“The number of kids vaccinated in our county is quite low, like every other county. So I predict that we’ll probably see a wave in early fall. Perhaps, God forbid, another wave in the winter because we can’t predict whether or not we’ll have other variants,” Chau said at an Aug. 4 news conference – the first public COVID update since winter.

As of Thursday, 94,347 out of the over 250,000 kids between the ages of 5-11 in Orange County have been fully vaccinated, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency data.

And 167,365 out of the close to 250,000 kids between the age of 12-17 in OC have been fully vaccinated, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Chau said the OC Health Care Agency will help schools host vaccination clinics on campuses.

“The best advice would be for parents to really have a discussion with their pediatrician, as it is related to vaccinating their children. I personally still believe that that is a parent’s decision and it should be a decision made together with a pediatrician,” he said.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 vaccine has long been expected to be added to a required list of vaccines for students, despite pushback from some local educators, parents and students.

According to a statement from the California Department of Public Health in April, the requirement won’t go into effect until the COVID shots get full FDA approval, something officials estimate no sooner than July 1, 2023. 

Last month, the department released new COVID-19 guidance for the 2022-23 school year that went into effect on July 1 of this year.

There is no longer a statewide school mask requirement, however state public health officials strongly recommend students and staff still wear masks indoors. State officials are requiring schools to provide masks to students who want to wear them.

In Orange County, many educators, parents, and students railed against the mask mandate while others spoke at school board meetings in support of following public health guidelines including mandatory masking during the past two years.

The school mask mandate ended on March 11.

[Read: Orange County Students Can Ditch Masks After March 11]

Concerns are not just centered around COVID this year with cases of monkeypox rising in OC and nearby Los Angeles county.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion, respiratory issues and rashes that could be near the genitals or anus. 

The disease spreads through close skin-to-skin contact with people who have monkeypox rashes and sores.

Click here for the American Academy of Pediatrics FAQ on monkeypox & children.

There are 52 confirmed and probable cases of monkeypox in the county as of Thursday, according to the OC Health Care Agency.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency over monkeypox this month and President Joe Biden declared a national emergency over the viral disease.

District spokespeople in Santa Ana Unified and Irvine Unified school districts have provided updates on their websites about monkeypox while other districts have not.  

In districts like Anaheim Union and Garden Grove Unified, spokespeople point to using the same precautions as COVID. It remains unclear if these districts have monkeypox tests.

As of Wednesday, Orange County’s COVID positivity rate was about 15% – down from nearly  20% last month – according to state data. 

As of Fridayday, 291 Orange County residents were hospitalized for COVID, including 44 in intensive care units, according to state data.

As of Thursday, COVID has now killed 7,247 OC residents since the pandemic kicked off in March 2020, according to the OC Health Care Agency.  

For comparison, OC saw 1,590 flu deaths from 2018 to 2020, according to state data.

During that same time, cancer killed 14,183 people and heart disease killed 8,549 Orange County residents. 

Following the return to school from winter break in January, scores of students and staff were testing positive for COVID amid an Omicron surge. The surge led to staff shortages at schools across the country.

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

Here’s how six of the largest school districts in OC are looking to prevent the spread of COVID and monkeypox.

Santa Ana Unified School District

The entrance to Wilson Elementary school in Santa Ana on July 12, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana Unified was one of – if not the last – districts in the county to return to school in-person and Santa Ana was the city hardest hit by the pandemic in Orange County.

Spokesman Fermin Leal said in a Tuesday phone interview that the district is preparing for an increased number of positive cases, based on what they saw during the winter surge.

“On the staffing level, we were making sure we have substitute teachers who are ready to go in case they’re needed,” he said. “We are planning with additional testing, additional staffing, to be able to react more quickly than then perhaps we reacted after the winter break.”

Leal said when the mandatory mask rule ended last semester, a lot of students and staff still kept theirs on.

“We’re expecting to see that at the beginning of the semester, too – I’d say about half and half,” Leal said, adding that they still encourage people to wear masks indoors.

According to their website, all students in the district will be given two at-home tests – one to be taken two days before school starts on Monday and another to be taken after the first week.

Leal said the district is still holding weekly test sites at the district offices, Santa Ana High School, Valley High School and Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School.

The tests are free and the sites are open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. An updated schedule on the clinics will be provided at the end of the month.

It remains unclear if the district’s COVID dashboard will stick around, although Leal said in an email Tuesday that officials are considering a revised version of the dashboard.

“We want to make sure that any information we provide on positivity rates and cases is the most accurate information we have at the time the information is presented. The previous model of the dashboard offered essentially a snapshot from two weeks prior,” he wrote.

The district temporarily took down the dashboard amid the winter surge in January as district officials contemplated creating a more up to date version.

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

As for monkeypox, the district is encouraging people with unidentified rashes to see a doctor and strongly encourage masking not only for COVID but also for monkeypox.

Leal said staff, administrators and nurses have been trained to spot monkeypox symptoms, adding the district has tests available for monkeypox upon request, but could not say how many tests they have specifically.

There are about 45,000 students in the district and about 5,000 employees, according to the district.

Garden Grove Unified School District

According to the district website, ventilation in classrooms have been upgraded to maximize fresh air circulation – something numerous public health experts have said will decrease the spread of COVID and other airborne illnesses.

To read more about Garden Grove Unified’s COVID protocols for the 2022-23 school year click here.

According to a Wednesday email from district spokeswoman Abby Broyles, the district hosted its first ever “education sector vaccine pod” in 2021 for teachers across the county as well as hosted pods for families at schools.

No vaccination clinics are planned for this school year, although Broyles said that could change if needed.

The district will continue reporting COVID cases on their dashboard and Broyles said the district is keeping an eye on the spread of monkeypox.

“Health and safety protocols put in place for COVID-19 will help prevent the spread of all illnesses including monkeypox,” she said. “If (COVID) rates rise again, we will remain vigilant and work together to ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for schools to learn.”

The district provides at-home COVID tests to students and staff upon request.

Students are heading back to school today.

According to the district website, Garden Grove Unified is the third largest school district in Orange County with nearly 40,000 students and over 5,000 employees.

Anaheim Union High School District

According to an update from the district’s Director of Risk Management, LeAnna Williams, daily health screenings for COVID symptoms will not be required for visitors and staff.

The update also states that weekly testing for staff members who are not fully vaccinated will still be required

Air purifiers will continue to be used in the classrooms with filters changed out during the summer. Areas considered “high touch points” will be disinfected daily.

When asked about monkeypox preventions, John Bautista – the district’s spokesman – pointed to the same precautions for COVID in an email last week but did not elaborate further.

The school year for Anaheim Union students started last week.

The district has a student population of about 31,000 and employs 3,000 people, according to the district website.

Capistrano Unified School District

The district’s COVID-19 Safety Plan outlines rules and regulations for the upcoming school year.

The guide says the Capistrano Unified officials have replaced all filtration systems, and they are required to be on at all times indoors.

The district strongly recommends masking, regardless of vaccination status – similar to guidelines from the state public health department.

The district recommends everyone wear masks indoors, including “including during sports, music, and related activities.”

Cloth masks and disposable masks are available in children and adult sizes at each school, based on need, the guide says.

The district will continue to update its COVID-19 dashboard with active cases for students and staff. The dashboard reflects cases of individuals who were presumed to be infectious while on a school campus. Cases will remain on the dashboard for 14 days.

Capistrano students will be heading back to school on Aug. 16.

There 42,754 students enrolled in the district and 3,841 employees, according to the district website.

Irvine Unified School District

Adults in a K-12 school setting are required to wear a mask sharing indoor spaces with students, per the Irvine Unified School District COVID-19 Safety Plan found on their website. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

The district enhanced ventilation across campuses and installed air purification units that clean the air every 30 minutes. The Irvine schools will also continue to enforce cleaning and disinfecting protocols and provide hand washing stations and free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

The district has a COVID-19 dashboard that represents the number of students and staff with a confirmed positive COVID-19 case within the last 10 days.

The website’s monkeypox guidance advises students and staff to stay home when sick, avoid close contact with people who have sores and rashes and practice good hygiene.

“When made aware of confirmed positive cases of monkeypox, we will report the case to the local health department as we would any other infectious disease,” the website reads. “We will follow Orange County Health Care Agency guidance on notifying those who may have been exposed and complete the recommended sanitation process.” 

Irvine students head back to the classroom on Aug. 18. The district teaches approximately 36,000 students across schools and employs over 4,000 people, according to the website.

Saddleback Valley Unified School District

El Toro Highschool during school dismissal on Jan. 13, 2022. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard is maintained weekly during the school year. The dashboard shows the weekly number of positive COVID-19 cases for students and staff per school site.

Saddleback is also slated to offer masks to students.

The dashboard combines the numbers of people who have been infected that are on or off campus.

In January, the district ended up taking their dashboard down because they couldn’t keep up with the volume of cases.

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

Rapid antigen COVID tests are available for students at district schools.

The district enrolls approximately 25,000 students, according to the website. Students start school again on Aug. 15.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

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