Orange County Officials Debate Safest Way to Reopen Schools

July 8, 2020 Updated: July 14, 2020

The debate over how to best handle the reopening of Orange County, California, after mandatory closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic has spilled over into the schools.

While county school officials and medical professionals disagree on many specifics, most agree on the importance of getting children back to school in-person in the fall—and some say the psychological damage caused by isolation can be a greater threat to vulnerable youth than COVID-19.

“The impact on children, I think, is even worse than that on adults,” child psychiatrist Dr. Mark McDonald told The Epoch Times. “Children are meant to go to school, just as adults are meant to go to work.”

A recent public forum hosted by the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) illustrated a number of differences in the approach to reopening, especially regarding the use of face masks and social distancing.

McDonald, along with other health care and education professionals, spoke at the June 24 forum, which had the stated goal of providing “guidance and recommendations to Orange County school districts on the safe and effective reopening of public schools.”

The “natural neurodevelopmental environment” of children was thwarted when schools closed in early March, says McDonald, who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of young people with mental illness. He said it’s vital for students to play with other children, touch things, and learn how to concentrate in a room with other people.

“I can tell you, if the schools don’t reopen …  I mean, physically sitting in the chair in school, we’re going to see an entire generation of children who are not only having trouble now, but who are traumatized.”

Psychological Need for In-Person Schooling

The natural development of students came to a halt when schools closed and classrooms were replaced with Zoom sessions, according to McDonald. Screen time skyrocketed, while social activities were circumvented.

“A lot of children are really regressing,” he said. “They’re also developing anxiety disorders, depressive disorders. They’re scratching, they’re cutting, they’re having panic attacks, they’re having nightmares at night.”

Epoch Times Photo
Students attend a National Association of Music Merchants event at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Anaheim, Calif., on Jan. 17, 2017. (Jerod Harris/Getty Images for NAMM)

Not all parents are in a position to homeschool, McDonald said, compounding the problem. Some are single parents who work all day; others just don’t have time to babysit their kids while they complete assignments online. Some children live with caregivers who have more than one child to look after. Lower-income families don’t have the resources to succeed in online learning.

Young children are being taught a fear-based illusion of safety by remaining sheltered-in-place, inhibiting their ability to grow from mistakes or discomfort, McDonald said. Eventually, they become comfortable at home and “don’t even want to go out anymore.”

“They start to become a shell of their former self. And in order to get them back to their normal [psychological] growth patterns … you have to take them to therapy.”

In June, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) laid out its recommendations for reopening schools. Physical distancing, cleanliness measures, and COVID-19 screenings were outlined.

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” the guide states.

“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”

Parents also overwhelmingly favor in-person learning for their children.

Epoch Times Photo
A sign at Santiago Hills Elementary School in Irvine, Calif., announces the first day of school for the 2020–21 school year. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The Orange Unified School District (OUSD), which serves more than 28,000 students in Anaheim, Orange, and Santa Ana, elicited parent input through an online survey on June 3 in which it asked families to choose between coming back to school in the fall or virtual education.

Over 8,400 responses were collected, with 73 percent of families opting for traditional learning back in school, and the remaining 27 percent preferring a virtual option.

What Will Reopened Schools Look Like?

The Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) has developed a guideline for reopening schools that includes input from health experts and local school districts. The recommendations include a mixture of in-person and virtual learning, innovative scheduling, and monitoring the health situation.

Epoch Times Photo
An aerial view of Sierra Vista Middle School in Irvine, Calif., on July 13, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
An aerial view of Sierra Vista Middle School in Irvine, Calif., on July 13, 2020. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The department noted the importance of instructing students in proper handwashing and the use of face coverings in its guidelines. If a faculty member contracts COVID-19, protocols are also included in the guide.

Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares said the guide, which has “recommendations for classroom space, cleaning, food service, promoting healthy hygiene, and other areas,” should be used by districts “to make decisions that best meet their local needs.”

OCDE Chief Communications Officer Ian Hanigan told The Epoch Times via email that “locally elected school boards and superintendents will approve and implement plans specific to their districts based on the needs of their schools and communities.”

According to OUSD’s “Reimagining Schools & Facility Reopening Plans,” one suggested model for returning is a hybrid approach, alternating between remote and in-person learning.

The OUSD plans outline different scenarios for blended learning. One possibility would split students into two groups; half of the students would show up on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the other half would attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays would be dedicated to “planning, professional development, and student interventions.”

Other options include alternating weeks among four groups, or splitting students up into morning and afternoon assemblies. The goal is to keep the classrooms under capacity.

Hand washing stations around school grounds are also encouraged, in addition to staggering lunch breaks to prevent students from interacting too closely. Physical distancing will be implemented between lunch tables, too.

“OUSD will provide physical guides, such as sneeze guards and partitions, tape on floors or sidewalks and signage on walls to ensure that students remain at least 6 feet apart in lines or while waiting for seating,” the guide states.

The OUSD plan encourages physical distancing in the classrooms—as well as on school buses—by creating a seating chart with 6-foot social distancing protocols. One of the stated goals is to “prevent students from walking past each other,” which may be more difficult among younger students.

County Board of Education President Mari Barke told The Epoch Times she didn’t think the recommendations were practical.

“I think if you’re not comfortable sending your kid on a school bus, don’t put them on, but I don’t see how you can make the school bus practical and socially distancing,” she said.

Another board member, Ken Williams, thinks physical distancing will affect childhood experiences.

“They can’t play on the playground or play hide and seek. They can’t do these things at school, so it becomes pragmatically very difficult,” Williams told The Epoch Times.

“How are we going to police kids who are always touching one another, and being crazy and happy and giggling? How are we gonna do that? We’re going to take away all of that from their childhood experiences in school?”

The Mask Debate

A number of noted medical experts and panelists discussed the guidelines for reopening at the June 24 OCBE forum, including Orange County Public Health Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau, infectious disease specialist Dr. Mike Fitzgibbons, and Chapman University Urban Studies Fellow Joel Kotkin.

The meeting’s agenda listed a number of principles that were all considered “unacceptable” options, including waiting for a vaccine or cure for schools to reopen; social distancing; and requiring children to wear masks, which was considered “impossible to implement” and “potentially harmful.”

Barke said most of the people on the panel agreed that “schools should open with kids without face masks, because the psychologist will tell you how damaging it is to a kid to be masked up and not be able to hug their friends and things like that.”

McDonald compared forcing children to wear masks as child abuse, since the risk for transmission is low among their age group.

Several former Orange County students who spoke on behalf of the public opposed the panelists’ perspectives, and urged the board to make mask-wearing mandatory for students of all ages.

Elizabeth Hubbard called the panel “incredibly biased” and “cherry-picked,” and said they were “not being truthful to the parents looking to them for support and guidance.”

“Several comments made by panelists tonight are untrue, from citing redacted papers to downright lying to citizens about mask efficacy,” Hubbard said.

Lyn Stoler read parts of a letter she addressed to the board, which amassed over 600 signatures in support.

“While children may experience less severe symptoms, there is a lack of evidence supporting that these less severe cases are less contagious,” Stoler stated.

“Viral load is high, even if cases may appear less severe in children—and asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic children may still pose a transmission threat to their family and community members,” she said.

“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] continues to recommend 6 feet of social distancing. How is it unacceptable to implement a proven intervention for a known problem?”

The OCBE hasn’t made any final decisions on proposals for reopening schools; individual districts have full discretion as to how they choose to resume learning.