Schools throughout Orange County, California, are gradually opening up to allow more children on campuses, with many locations offering hybrid learning schedules or delaying their reopening dates until later this year.
But as more schools and businesses open up in the community, the risk of COVID-19 infection grows, said Dr. Clayton Chau, county health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, at an Oct. 8 press conference.
One of the biggest concerns for individual schools remains how to deal with potential COVID-19 outbreaks. The state of California defines an outbreak as a cluster of three or more confirmed cases in members of different households.
So far, cases at Orange County schools have been largely isolated, according to Chau.
“We do have cases, but they are not linked to each other, and most of the infections happened in the community,” Chau said.
To help inform the public and reassure parents, some school districts, like Irvine Unified, have launched online dashboards that list all current COVID-19 cases at each school in the district.
As of Oct. 11, Irvine Unified has reported four staff and six students infected, from nine schools. Thirty-three schools have no reported cases.
“In the event there is a positive case, affected individuals will be contacted directly by their school principals or staff and they will receive a letter that may include self-isolation directions and other important information,” according to the Irvine Unified website.
Families are required to report to their school any student who is suspected or confirmed to be infected. Children with symptoms must stay home for a minimum of 10 days plus at least 24 hours with no fever. To return to school, they must provide a doctor’s note.
Orange County universities are also posting all active positive COVID-19 cases on their websites.
As of Oct. 12, 17 Chapman University students living on campus in the city of Orange had tested positive, while 19 living off campus nearby had received a positive test. The university has a total enrollment of about 10,000 students.
COVID-19 testing for graduate students living on campus at the University of California–Irvine began on Oct. 12, and all student residents will be tested weekly starting Oct. 19. The campus had six active cases—three staff and three students—as of Oct. 11.
Nearly 7,500 students are expected to live in the university’s on-campus housing during the fall term—about half of its 16,000 student capacity.
Meanwhile, some schools continue to have disagreements over their reopening schedules.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District held a special board meeting on Oct. 8 and voted 5–1 to delay the return of its classes for grades 7 to 12 from Oct. 12 until no later than Dec. 17. Elementary schools have already returned to a hybrid schedule.
Officials apologized for the last-minute change in a message on the district’s website.
“These are difficult decisions that we have to make, but are always done with the best interests of our students and staff in mind. Thank you for your continued understanding and flexibility during this pandemic,” read the message.
The district plans to use the extra time to adjust the schools’ hybrid models to allow more student and teacher interaction, provide additional student support, and allow more professional development for staff.
The Santa Ana Unified School District is planning on returning children in kindergarten and transitional kindergarten classes to hybrid in-person instruction on Nov. 2. Other grades will return in the following weeks “contingent on health conditions in the community at the time,” according to its website.
Nov. 2 was also chosen as the start date for the Fullerton Joint Union High School District’s hybrid schedule, according to an Oct. 8 letter from Superintendent Scott Scambray.
Meanwhile, the La Habra City School District will welcome transitional and regular kindergarten students on campus starting on Oct. 19. Older children will be phased gradually, starting Oct. 26 and continuing weekly through the middle of November.
Orange County reported 117 new cases of COVID-19 on Oct. 12, down from 244 on Oct. 11. Zero deaths were reported on Oct. 12, and only one on Oct. 11.
According to Orange County CEO Frank Kim, the county hopes to keep the daily case count below 130 to qualify for the less-restrictive orange tier in California’s color-coded COVID-19 monitoring system.