Nearly 70% of teacher unions in Orange County have recommended school districts return to distance learning until coronavirus infection rates stabilize, said a joint letter distributed to superintendents and school boards on Thursday, Dec. 10.
In recent weeks a few districts have again sent students away from campus, returning to 100% virtual learning and canceling sports practices and other in-person activities. The letter sent by 19 teacher unions in the county would like to see other districts follow suit.
Educators remain steadfast that in-person instruction is the optimal learning environment and most county schools have reopened, but pivoting online is their strategy for slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
“I’m not saying all schools need to do it, but for us here in La Habra, with the high infection rate, we need to do that,” said John Dobson, an outgoing board member in the La Habra City School District that teaches about 5,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Neighboring Brea Olinda Unified also this week transitioned back to full-time distance learning through January after having students mix their days between learning on campus and virtually from a computer.
“A lot of our kids live in multiple-generation kind of housing and that seems to be a problem for the spread,” Dobson said. “To my knowledge, the community has pretty much supported the decision.”
Orange County, along with the rest of Southern California, was placed under a regional stay-at-home order this week as hospital bed supplies shrink and new cases of the virus surge.
“We want to be on record doing everything we can to put safety first for students and teachers,” said Teri Sorey, president of the Irvine Teachers Association who signed the joint letter by the unions and shared it with the Irvine Unified School District. “We feel we can help stop the spread.”
The letter received support from unions in these districts, though several have not reopened to in-person learning yet: Anaheim Elementary, Anaheim Union, Brea Olinda, Buena Park, Fullerton Elementary, Fullerton Joint Union, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach Union, Laguna Beach, La Habra, Magnolia, Newport-Mesa, Orange, Santa Ana, Saddleback Valley, Savanna, Tustin and Westminster.
Irvine Unified Superintendent Terry Walker recently informed the community the district remains committed to offering in-person instruction, citing its safety record after implementing strategies for social distancing, masks, improved ventilation and smaller cohorts.
The district of nearly 36,000 students as of Thursday, Dec. 10, listed 50 students and 30 staff among its current cases on an online COVID dashboard.
“When the guidelines are followed, it can make a difference in preventing and limiting the spread of COVID-19,” district spokeswoman Annie Brown said. “IUSD’s top priority is the health and safety of our students, staff and families, and we continue to follow state and local guidelines for schools as we closely monitor this situation.”
Anaheim Union High School District, which with Santa Ana Unified are the largest districts to remain in distance learning, announced last week it would postpone the transition to any in-person learning until at least March 15.
Leaders of the district of nearly 30,000 junior high and high school students had hoped to make the change at the start of the second semester in January, but now face the potential of remaining in distance learning for a full calendar year.
“Things have changed and we are modifying our decision based on that,” Trustee Al Jabbar said during the district’s special school board meeting.
The district also suspended its physical conditioning programs for athletics, along with visual and performing arts practices.
“Others are starting to do the same thing,” said Anaheim Union’s district athletic director Mitch Olson, also the football coach at Loara High. “I think it’s what is coming.”
Days earlier the CIF State organization informed schools it was placing start dates for fall sports “on hold.”
It is unclear if Anaheim Union would have been able to start in-person learning next month regardless. Since Orange County slipped to the state’s most restrictive purple tier in mid-November, reopening more classrooms isn’t an option in most cases.
If schools already reopened while the county was in the red tier or received a waiver from the state, they can continue with in-person instruction. But for schools that hadn’t begun in-person instruction, they need to wait for the county to climb back to the red tier and stay there for 14 consecutive days. And that can’t even begin to happen until metrics are re-evaluated after the three-week stay-at-home order.
Laguna Beach’s secondary schools got caught in the mix, board member Jan Vickers said. District leaders had hoped to return to in-person instruction at the secondary level on Nov. 23, but the county went purple about a week earlier.
“We’re just waiting now,” she said. “We were really disappointed.”
Superintendent Jason Viloria said the hope is now for secondary schools to resume in-person instruction “at some point in January” under county and state guidelines.
Santa Ana Unified, the second-largest district in the county with about 50,000 students, is “still in a holding pattern,” said spokesman Fermin Leal. The district also suspended conditioning for athletics and closed a series of small learning labs that had opened to help the students needing the most assistance with virtual learning.
Garden Grove Unified also has a host of schools that haven’t physically reopened, including its eight high schools. There are some in the district who support resuming in-person instruction.
“I think we could do it safely,” said Ricardo Cepeda, a history teacher at Garden Grove High and also the school’s football coach. “For me, it’s what’s best for the kids. The kids that want to be here, need to be here. This is their home.”
The Orange County Health Care Agency has joined the many school districts that have online dashboards showing their confirmed cases with its own tracking spread countywide. The agency reports 675 cases since mid-August for students and staff of elementary and secondary schools, plus colleges and vocational schools.
Some teacher union leaders are wary of the dashboards accuracy, saying not all families and staff are reporting cases, and the schools only post confirmed results. Most schools are not testing students for the coronavirus and rely on self-reporting, strong safety plans and support from the Orange County Health Care Agency.
“Without consistently applied testing and tracing, our schools risk spreading infection throughout the county,” the teacher unions’ letter says.
“By shifting instruction to distance learning, we can help flatten the curve before the rate of infection spikes beyond the capacity of hospitals and health care providers.”
Los Alamitos Unified superintendent Andrew Pulver said he believes families in his district have been diligent in reporting cases.
Los Alamitos Unified reports 27 current coronavirus cases – 22 students and five staff members – at Los Alamitos High as of Thursday. That’s just under 1% of the school’s on-campus population of 2,921.
“Schools continue to be one of the safest places,” Pulver said.
Dr. Dan Cooper, a professor of pediatrics and an associate vice chancellor at UCI School of Medicine, said he credits schools’ safety plans, but remains concerned about other threats.
“We believe that it’s safer for kids to be in school because you also got to add the damage that’s being done by keeping kids out of school,” he said. “And the kids that are being most affected by this are unfortunately, the most vulnerable.
“Low income, lower socio-economic. They’re going to lose learning. Social isolation – there’s already reports from around the world of increases in weight gain. None of these things are good for kids,” he said. “Having said this, no school is going to fail-safe. There are going to be outbreaks. There is a very contagious, nasty virus out there.”
Whatever a district has decided, navigating education during a pandemic has proven challenging for all, said Orange County Superintendent of School Al Mijares said. “With any crisis, you do learn from it. It does create resilience. It helps people to acquire a greater degree of grit and those are the (intangible) skills that young people need to get through life. That’s the silver lining.”
Staff writer Steve Fryer contributed to this report