IRVINE, Calif.—As schools begin to slowly reopen throughout Orange County, concerned parents and county school board members are calling for in-classroom instruction to begin immediately.
Parents, educators, and students gathered on Sept. 8 in front of Arnold O. Beckman High School in Irvine, rallying for the state to allow children to return to the classroom as soon as possible.
What we are seeing here today is the “voice of the parents that really want their kids to receive in-school, in-classroom instruction,” Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) President Dr. Ken Williams told The Epoch Times.
OCBE member Mari Barke called the movement "the biggest school choice fight of my life.”
“Children deserve the choice to be in school,” Barke told The Epoch Times.
“I went on this board two years ago. I was elected by the constituents for school choice. I had no idea that school choice would actually be reopening schools.”
A day after the protest, on Sept. 9, the California Supreme Court refused to hear a petition by the OCBE to reopen public schools right away, ending for the moment the board’s legal challenge.
The petition questioned "the authority and the limits of emergency powers that are granted to the governor,” Williams said.
The OCBE has also petitioned local courts to reopen public schools, but that “may not be something that's practical, because all the local court systems are closed down,” he added.
On Sept. 8, Orange County was elevated to the red tier on the state’s monitoring list, easing restrictions on businesses and restaurants based on improving COVID-19 case rates. Schools in the county are now allowed to reopen on Sept. 22, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom's Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
So far, 131 private and public elementary schools in the county have received approval to reopen for in-person instruction after applying for state waivers.
Among them, the Los Alamitos Unified School District opened the doors to six elementary schools on Sept. 8, while the Fullerton Unified School District announced that it would begin in-person classes on Oct. 5.
'I Know What's Best for My Children'Parents at the rally told The Epoch Times they should be able to make the choice whether to send their children back to school, and said distance learning has proven problematic for their children.
Amy Connelly, who has three children in the Tustin Unified School District, told The Epoch Times that “distance learning is just not working” and her children are suffering from “screen fatigue.”
It’s “very challenging for the students to be at home, isolated in their bedrooms,” Connelly said. “My youngest child has a learning disability, and for him to be separated from his teacher has caused tremendous anxiety, stress, and challenges for him.”
She said she never thought “someone would be able to tell us you don’t have a choice to send your kids back” to school.
“As a parent, I know what's best for my children. And I want the choice to be able to send my children to school. I want to believe that it's going to happen in Orange County.”
Kevin O’Donnell is the father of a fifth-grader and a high school sophomore.
“We're here to ensure that schools reopen, and reopen in full, and not just here in Orange County but across the state,” O'Donnell told The Epoch Times.
He said children are “not getting the social interaction, they're not getting that in-person face-to-face time that is so important for kids to learn.”
Sharon MacDougall said her kids are “not getting near the education that they need” through distance learning.
“I would say they’re getting 20 percent of what they normally would’ve gotten,” MacDougall told The Epoch Times.
One of her children is a freshman at Mater Dei High School, a private school.
“The whole reason why we registered her for Mater Dei was we thought that because it's a private school, she'd be able to go to school. But as you know, the edict from Newsom is affecting both the private and the public schools.”
Tamara Ponce said she has six children, including an 18-year-old with special needs.
“Online learning isn't an option for him,” Ponce told The Epoch Times.
“He's visually impaired, and he's profoundly mentally retarded. He's also not getting any of his therapies, like occupational speech, physical therapy, vision therapy, things like that. So he's just at home ... doing nothing.”
Physician Jeff Barke believes that keeping children away from the safe environment of school is harming them.
“Kids are being hurt by being out of school,” Barke told The Epoch Times. He called the school closures “a contagion ... worse than the virus,” and said “the level of depression amongst children is the highest I've ever seen in my career.”
Barke said schools in Orange County were ready to open this week, but due to Newsom’s new color-coded system, the reopening has been extended.
“He created the original metrics that we had met in Orange County allowing schools to open, and we were about to open. And then he changed the rules. He moved the goalposts, and that's not fair,” he said.