Ready or not, here they come.
Many more Orange County children are heading back to the classroom as early as this week.
Some parents and teachers say the time is right. Some don’t think so.
Several school districts plan to launch in-person learning on at least a part-time basis within the next few weeks. To achieve social distancing, many will be using a hybrid model with students spending some hours of the week in the classroom, with the remainder still devoted to distance learning done online.
Plenty of parents and teachers crave the return to in-person education that preceded the coronavirus pandemic and students are certainly missing their friends. But plenty others think distance learning is the only reasonable method for a cohesive education and until further progress is made in reducing or eliminating COVID-19’s foothold in Orange County.
And some just don’t know what to think.
The state says schools may return students to campus after a county’s second week on or below the second-tier – coded red for substantial risk – of its four-tier monitoring system, which Orange County marks on Tuesday, Sept. 22.
Looking at the recent downward trends in infection rates, deaths and hospitalizations, some see evidence that getting kids back in the classrooms is safe, especially with partitions around desks, masks, social distancing, frequent sanitization plans and limiting the interaction of students.
Some look at the statistics and see the need for longer-lasting reductions in cases first before sending children back to campus.
In the last couple of weeks, a rally was held in front of a Tustin Unified campus to support a quick return to classrooms and in a Santa Ana park to urge for more caution and delay. Parents have organized to press the Huntington Beach City School District to reopen schools for optimum education and socialization, while recently letters and petitions have circled in the Irvine Unified and Saddleback Valley Unified school districts with concerns about the safety of returning to campuses and the confusing affect of bouncing students between home and classroom learning.
Garden Grove Unified officials announced last week there is still too much to hash out and it is reversing course and will continue distance learning for the foreseeable future. Santa Ana Unified has set no reopening date.
Rick Penn, a physical education teacher at Magnolia High in Anaheim, has senior citizens among the seven people living in his Anaheim Hills home. Penn, who is 59 and has taught at Magnolia for 30 years, is on heart medication to deal with an atrial fibrillation issue. He is among what he said are many teachers balking at the idea of students returning to the classroom. His district, the Anaheim Union High School District, is monitoring local hot spots of the virus and has said there is no pending return to campus planned.
“We have a lot of teachers with a lot of angst going on,” Penn said. “Because nobody knows. It’s going to take one kid or one teacher getting sick for this whole thing to shut down.”
But Todd Dixon, who teaches algebra at El Toro High in Lake Forest and has a son who is a junior there, said he is certain his school and its Saddleback Valley Unified School District have good safety measures in place with Plexiglas surrounding desks (Mission Viejo High teacher Troy Roelen calls them “human aquariums”), mask mandates, social distancing requirements, limited numbers of students in classrooms and temperature checks.
“The district wouldn’t do anything to put teachers and kids in jeopardy,” Dixon said. Saddleback Valley starts in-person instruction Sept. 29. “I’m confident that with masks and everybody washing hands and all of that, that everybody will be safe.”
Alex Goodman, 31, who teaches English and journalism at Newport Harbor High, is part of a team of teachers, parents and community members that drafted a letter to Newport-Mesa Unified School District leaders calling for even more preparation before on-campus learning begins Sept. 29.
“My wife has a history of health complications and a history of asthma,” he said. “I’m worried about my colleagues. We have a teacher whose wife has Stage 4 cancer.”
“Without those protocols,” Goodman said, “people are going to start getting sick and by then it’s going to be too late and we’ll be dealing with quarantines and lockdowns again.”
Newport-Mesa Unified’s public relations officer Annette Franco said the district’s reopening plan is solid and follows all of Orange County’s health guidelines. The state has also provided guidance and checklists to school districts.
“We have a phased approach with all of the safety precautions in place,” Franco said, adding the district’s leadership knows there are those ready to return to campus and those with misgivings.
“This is a very diverse community with different sides on this issue,” she said.
Tyler and Kristy Ernt had a choice between continuing distance learning or selecting the hybrid option for their twin daughters who are at Pioneer Middle School in the Tustin Unified School District.
“We talked about it a few days and mulled it over,” Tyler Ernt said, “and we’ve been talking with other parents and ultimately we talked about it with our girls. We wanted to make sure they were comfortable with it.”
Although they chose to have their daughters go back in the classroom when in-person learning starts this week, Ernt said he expects the coronavirus to hang around and perhaps even surge again.
“At some time something is going to come about,” Ernt said. “So the question for me is: How does Tustin Unified contain it and deal with it?”
Kevin Robinson, a real estate broker who was a substitute teacher and assistant football coach in the Anaheim Union High School District, has a 6-year-old daughter at Centralia School District’s Los Coyotes Elementary in La Palma. His wife, Ivy Robinson, is a substitute teacher in the district, which is starting its elementary-grade children in a hybrid model on Oct. 5.
“They say that kids are affected less by the virus,” Robinson said. “But I don’t want to find out later that my kid is one who could be affected.”
Robinson praised the open lines of communication and information coming from the Centralia district, but said he remains wary. “I’m just a dad with a little bit of fear,” he said.
Dan Gastelum, who teaches physical education at Western High in Anaheim and also is the school’s Junior ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) instructor, said he is confident he will execute his duties safely and the students with whom he works will be equally safe.
He has a 12-year-old daughter attending Orangeview Junior High in Anaheim, “and she’s not afraid,” Gastelum said.
Gastelum said other parents he talks with regularly are united in their opinion that it’s time to get their children back in their classrooms.
“We’re of the opinion that we’ve got to move forward,” he said, “especially for the mental health side of it.”
Greg Danz of Newport Beach is in accord. He has twin sons who are high school freshmen, one at Corona del Mar in the Newport-Mesa district and the other at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, and a seventh-grader at Harbor Day School in Newport Beach.
“They should be back in school,” Danz said. “The science and the testing clearly prove it.”
But a return to school should include coronavirus protocols such as masks, social distancing and COVID-19 tests, he said.
He said people who live in his neighborhood aren’t generally caring for elderly relatives in their homes, but he’s aware that families in other communities are doing so – transmission to older residents and those with underlying health conditions is a concern.
“Maybe each family’s different,” he said, “and maybe some of their kids shouldn’t go back to school yet.
“I think the hybrid model is good, where the ones who want to go back to school can go back to school and play sports. The ones who are worried and want to do online learning, let them do distance learning.”
Brit Johnson, a 50-year-old government and economics teacher at Kennedy High in La Palma, is not a fan of having students shuttle between online and in-person learning throughout the week. He prefers either a return to full-time, in-class instruction, as in the pre-COVID days, or remaining with the full-time online arrangement.
“In my opinion,” Johnson said, “it should be an all-or-nothing deal.”
Johnson, who used to be Kennedy High’s varsity football head coach, has a 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter attending school in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District where a phasing-in of hybrid learning begins Oct. 7.
Johnson said he would be fine with them just continuing to learn from home. Though it does “feels like they’re missing out on so much of what it means to be a kid” and that is why he said he would also be OK with a full-time return to campus. “Going to school with your peers, solving problems on the playground, those sorts of things.”