Orange County officials Tuesday released details of how local elementary schools can get a waiver from distance-learning only models this school year, a move the Diocese of Orange is planning to apply for in its Roman Catholic schools.

Because Orange County is on the state’s watch list, students in the county must start the school year learning via online devices only.

The state issued guidelines Monday night, and the Orange County Health Care Agency followed up with guidelines on Tuesday.

The waiver would be for students up to sixth grade.

The Diocese of Orange pushed back its first day of school to Sept. 8 to buy time for the county to get off the state’s watch list and to prepare for a distance-learning only model in case that is needed.

“We would have liked (the waiver) to extend through eighth grade because our model goes through eight grade to include all of our elementary school students, but that is not the case, so we’ll do the best we can do to take the opportunity to at least get our youngest learners back on campus, and that is of paramount importance to us,” said Diocese of Orange Superintendent Erin Barisano.

The diocese’s educators believe that younger students struggle with online learning more than older students, especially seventh- and eighth-graders, who have had a “whole trimster of distance learning,” Barisano said.

“They’ll just be better equipped to enter the school year” with an online educational model, she said.

“Our kindergarten and first-graders starting with distance learning — and those are such foundational years — it’s very difficult for our students and teachers,” Barisano said.

The diocese’s elementary school principals have had some conversations about holding as many activities outdoors as much as possible, but high school administrators are preparing their campuses to hold classes outside when possible, Barisano said.

“What has served us well throughout this entire crisis is being creative and responding creatively to the needs of our community and respond quickly,” Barisano said.

“Our governance structure gives us the autonomy to do that, so that has been a huge benefit to our larger Catholic community and to individual schools as well.”

Loyola Marymount University educators at the start of the pandemic developed an online educational curriculum for the diocese’s teachers to help train them for online instruction, Barisano said.

“In the first weeks and months of the distance learning we worked with them to design some focused professional development tools for our teachers so they were well equipped to deliver distance learning instruction,” Barisano said.

“We’ve expanded that partnership to the point that three schools will be engaged in a three-year-long professional development to become certified blended learning schools.”

The diocese’s schools have used various apps such as Zoom or SeeSaw, Google Classroom, and Microsoft Team to connect with students and parents, Barisano said.

Unlike some local public schools, online access has not been an issue for students at the Catholic schools, Barisano said.

“We’re blessed with that,” she said, adding that most students have devices on their own or one issued by the school.

The diocese conducted a survey of parents and students and found that 75% rated the online education as very or highly effective, Barisano said.

When the county gets off the watch list, parents will be given options of on-campus campus or distance learning, Barisano said. The diocese has developed an all digital academy at St. Polycarp in Stanton, she added.

“We realize that one of the things important to us is parental choice,” she said. “We want to make sure we have different options to meet the needs of our families.”

The diocese’s high schools will begin classes this month. Rosary Academy High School will begin classes Aug. 10, Santa Margarita Catholic High School Aug. 17 and Mater Dei High School Aug. 31.

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