Gov. Gavin Newsom announces restrictions
Gov. Gavin Newsom announces restrictions. Image from state video

With many school districts in Orange County planning some sort of in-classroom teaching this fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement mandating online-only models for counties on the watch list sent educators locally scrambling for new plans.

The Tustin and Capistrano Unified school districts were planning to offer a mix of in-classroom and online instruction. Parents of Tustin Unified School District students have a Monday deadline to choose online-only, in-class instruction or a mix of both, and they continued to expect parents to choose by then.

Newsom’s announcement mandating that counties on the state’s watch list must meet its standards for various metrics such as a certain percentage of hospital beds available for a surge of patients before getting off the list. And the county must be able to meet those standards for two weeks before getting off the list.

In Orange County, that may be impossible. The county is well below the state’s standards for handling a surge of patients in hospitals as well as its change in three-day averages of coronavirus patients, but the rate of people testing positive is so far above the state’s threshold it may never meet that standard.

“With the numbers increasing the way they are it’s challenging for a number of counties,” said Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who is also the president of the California State Association of Counties.

“We’re a major job center, so we have people commuting in and out of our community to work every single day,” Bartlett told City News Service. “It’s not like we have Orange County in a bubble and can contain and lock things down… With the trends right now, to me, it doesn’t look hopeful that many of the urban counties like Orange County will be able to get off the watch list in the near future.”

Bartlett added, “Aside from the positivity rate, Orange County still has a large percentage of capacity when it comes to hospital and ICU beds and ventilators.”

The “most important metrics have to do with hospitalizations and people going into the ICU beds and, of course, the death rates,” Bartlett said.

“Even though the positivity rate keeps going up my concern is we maintain adequate capacity so our health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed,” Bartlett said.

The positivity rate may keep increasing as the county prioritizes symptomatic residents over asymptomatic ones. The reason officials have focused on symptomatic residents is because opening up testing to everyone created a backlog of reporting results from labs and a shortage of medical supplies, officials say.

Other issues school district officials may face is making certain students from needy families that cannot afford internet service at home are able to use school-issued tablets.

Fermin Leal, chief communications officer for the Santa Ana Unified School District, said it has spent about $5 million acquiring Chromebooks with boxes that serve as a hot spot provider so students don’t need to subscribe to a web connection service. The school board voted this week to start the school year with online instruction.

“We are trying to get every student without access to technology or the internet… access through hot spots,” Leal said.

School officials are also trying to determine how younger students can be monitored or do their lessons when a parent or caregiver is unavailable to monitor them, Leal said. That may involve having teachers record lessons students can watch when parents return home from work, Leal said.

Dr. Dan Cooper, a professor pediatrics at UC Irvine, said it could lead some parents to turn to babysitters, creating an unsafe and unregulated black market.

Cooper co-wrote an article on how to safely reopen schools for the Journal of Pediatrics with Dr. Lisa Guay-Woodford.

Cooper has advocated students to return to in-class instruction, but it must be done safely. He bemoaned how little planning has been done.

“I think we could have done a better job of that,” Cooper said.

There was time from the end of the school year until now to get all of the stakeholders together to come up with a statewide plan and it didn’t happen, Cooper said.

“In the best of all possible words we would have been really planning in the intervening three or four months and came up with finer details of the needs of individual schools and it didn’t happen for whatever reason,” Cooper said.

“Now, if we take a deep breath maybe we’ll do some catch up and develop some real plans and maybe there will be pressure now on the schools. Maybe there will be more state support. Maybe this will be an opportunity to do the hard work to get to the point where the schools can confidently say to parents we’re ready, we have mitigation in place.”

Cooper has suggested holding classes outdoors to help minimize the risk of transmission of the disease, but he said there could be many logistical problems with the practice. For instance, how do school officials provide electricity for devices safely and make sure students can hear their teachers.

If a tent is set up, can schools make sure they are safely erected, Cooper said.

“What if something happens and it falls down and it rains of it becomes loose,” Cooper said. “Schools are very, very sensitive to all these parents who are going to say who put up that tent? Did they know what they were doing?”

But some countries in Europe have done outdoor instructions, and some private schools are planning to do it, Cooper said.

Dr. Clayton Chau, the director of the Orange County Health Care Agency and the county’s interim health officer, said outdoor education is a “good idea.”

Orange County Board of Education member Tim Shaw agreed it would be a good idea, but said it has not come up in any discussions among school leaders.

Shaw was one of four board members, with one dissenting, who voted to adopt a report on Monday that was widely criticized and made national headlines because it downplayed the use of masks, even declaring they can be harmful with lengthy use, and that social distancing should not be required. The Board of Education’s vote was only advisory and not binding on school districts.

“What we adopted was never going to be required,” Shaw said. “They were some recommendations and we were leaving it to the local districts to adopt, and to allow parents to make a decision.”

Shaw said he has been inundated with “nasty emails, voicemails and social media posts.”

He said it was important for state officials to “somehow quantify the profound negatives on the other side of this — the kids missing proms, football games, the emotional social interaction so necessary for young people, the isolation that leads to depression and drug use.”

Shaw said he would “try to be optimistic that over the summer districts have figured out how to be a little better, how to teach online. I just know anecdotally as a father of a first-grader last year that when it came time to sit in front of this screen for the next three hours that didn’t work out so well. The little guys are going to have a real tough time.”

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