Some of the largest school districts in Orange County, California, say they will not follow their board of education’s recommendation to return students and teachers to the classroom.
The Orange County Board of Education approved its recommendations on Monday for the reopening of schools in the fall. The board voted 4-1 to approve a set of guidelines, including regular temperature checks, frequent hand washing and thorough cleanings of classrooms, offices and buses.
The board did not, however, require the use of masks or social distancing. In fact, it advised against the measures.
CNN contacted or gathered information from all 28 of the county’s school districts on Tuesday. Of the districts that responded or posted plans online — more than half — none said they would return children to school without masks or social distancing.
The Anaheim Union High School District, which serves approximately 30,000 students, told CNN it will recommend to its board of trustees re-opening schools with a full distance-learning model to start the 2020-2021 school year.
Santa Ana Unified, the county’s second largest district with more than 50,000 students and employees, will follow a similar path, stating in a news release that the district will start the year “entirely via distance learning.”
“During these challenging times, the safety of our school community continues to be our top priority. While we hope at some point to have our students attend our schools alongside their classmates and teachers, now is not the time,” said Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Jerry Almendarez.
“Meanwhile, we are working to develop a rigorous distance learning plan that will allow students to continue their education at home.”
Farther south, Irvine Unified School District, with 36,000 students, said it will discuss its educational model for the fall in a meeting Tuesday night, but added, “To be clear, IUSD is not governed by the OC Board of Education and our District will not follow their non-binding recommendations for the 2020-21 school year.”
Other districts in the county that serve grades K-12, including the Capistrano and Tustin Unified School Districts, say they will offer families the option of a hybrid schedule or 100% online learning. Still, the Huntington Beach Union High School District, La Habra City School District, and others specifically said they would not return children to classes under the guidelines.
And a smaller district in Anaheim, the Magnolia School District, slammed the board for “politicizing” the safety of schools, and said it was leaning toward 100% online instruction in the fall.
“We are in Anaheim with the highest percent of Covid-19 infections in the Orange County,” Superintendent Frank Donavan told CNN. “The Board’s vote last night is not safe and is politicizing something that shouldn’t be political.”
The board’s recommendations
“K-12 children represent the lowest-risk cohort for Covid-19. Because of that fact, social distancing of children and reduced census classrooms is not necessary and therefore not recommended,” read the recommendations, contained in a white paper.
“Requiring children to wear masks during school is not only difficult — if not impossible to implement — but not based on science. It may even be harmful and is therefore not recommended,” it said.
The board noted that these recommendations were merely guidelines, not “laws” or “even rules.” It will be up to the individual school districts on how they want to go about having their students return for in-person classes.
If a district decides to not reopen or resume classes in a “typical classroom environment and school atmosphere,” the board says parents should be allowed to send their children to another school district or charter school.
The board emphasized its belief that schools need to reopen in the fall.
Calling remote learning an “utter failure,” the board said “abandoning the classroom in favor of computer-based learning proved frustrating to all — not just parents and students but teachers, too.”
As California sees a surge in new coronavirus cases, two of the state’s largest school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — have already announced that they will not open for any in-person instruction in the fall.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated for schools to reopen in the fall, saying that the mental and physical benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risks from the coronavirus.
But while the group said face coverings or physical distancing were of lower priority to younger children, it recommended that students in middle and high schools be required to wear face coverings when a 6-foot distance is not able to be maintained.
“Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible,” The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a statement.
The group of pediatricians said a “one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate” for making decisions on the return to school.
“Schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts,” the statement reads.