Will Orange County show the nation how to safely reopen schools? A major test is underway

A crossing guard leads students and parents across a street
A crossing guard helps students as they return to in-class education, after months of closure due COVID-19 pandemic, at James H. Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Orange County school districts serving more than 200,000 students are opening their schoolyard gates this week and next, marking a major, widely watched test of the ability of California school systems to safely resume in-person classes amid the coronavirus crisis.

By Thursday, Tustin, Irvine, Fountain Valley and Cypress joined Los Alamitos Unified, which led the wave of openings with its elementary schools under a county-approved waiver. They will be followed next week by Capistrano, Saddleback, Orange, Newport-Mesa and Ocean View districts — a total of 10 of the county’s 28 school districts.

All the campuses are using hybrid schedules that allow a portion of students back at one time while others learn online — to help maintain social distancing by keeping classes small. So far, the vast majority of families have opted to return to campus.


This renewal of in-person classes after six months of pandemic forced campus closures is prompting both celebration and concern — with teachers and parents hoping that carefully laid plans on how to operate schools safely will not be derailed by outbreaks of coronavirus infections.

The openings come after Orange County — known for its anti-mask rebellion and defiance of state orders — was given state and county public health department clearance to reopen campuses because of the county’s lower coronavirus test positivity rate.

“Orange County may help lead the nation’s children back to school — but only if local educators and health officials proceed with untiring vigilance,” UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller said. “Orange County might also teach union leaders that reopening with care is possible, even beneficial, for kids and parents.”

California Teachers Assn. President Toby Boyd said the state lacks consistent procedures and oversight for ensuring that schools are safe.

“I don’t think that any child or any of my members should be a test case,” Boyd said.

Across the state, 33 counties with 478 school districts are eligible to reopen because of lower infection rates, said California Department of Education director of communications Daniel Thigpen. Of these, 56% are still online only — and not all have reported data to the state.


Most Orange County districts that are reopening sooner serve more affluent communities — where COVID-19 rates are lower. Districts serving mainly low-income households, including in Santa Ana and Anaheim, have no timetable for reopening campuses, raising equity concerns.

A teacher wearing a red face mask stands in her empty classroom.
Lisa Hickman, second-grade teacher at Sycamore Magnet Academy, shows how she will be teaching with plastic dividers as she prepares to teach in-person classes starting Thursday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Second-grade teacher Lisa Hickman of Tustin’s Sycamore Magnet Academy expressed the anxieties of a complicated and new classroom order: masks, desk dividers, staggered schedules, hand sanitizer by the gallon and dots on the floor indicating how close students can get to her.

But she was excited to meet the 7-year-olds whose voices and laughter she has known for weeks through the computer screen and audio of distance learning.

“Everyone wanted us to reopen, and I felt like Orange County was rushing it ... I’m terrified for the safety of my coworkers and my students — they’re my babies,” she said. “But right now our main concern is how to protect the kids.”

Teachers in Irvine, Newport-Mesa and Saddleback Valley protested their impending district openings last week, saying their schools are not safe enough.

Teachers in Irvine and Saddleback also put forth a novel argument against hybrid learning — saying that most students in middle and high school would receive a better education from distance learning.

“Research has emphasized the importance of movement,” Saddleback secondary teachers stated in a petition. “At the very least, in distance learning, students can safely move around their own homes during and in between lessons. They will not be able to do so in the hybrid model.”

They also contend that the hybrid model would reduce instructional time because of such things as safety checks and cleaning — and curtail time teachers are now using to work with students online individually and in small groups. Students also would be more limited in their ability to work with one another or move, albeit virtually, from class to class than in the rigid, socially distanced, small-group bubbles.

“All the plans in place will make the classroom environment less conducive for learning and more conducive for spread,” Mission Viejo High School teacher Shane Cost said. “This is all happening far too fast, and we still don’t know how to manage teaching an online and in-person class simultaneously.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said it was “ridiculous” for teachers to have to teach online and in-person simultaneously, and that dubious or unsafe practices need to be weeded out.

“Hybrid learning is nobody’s favorite,” Weingarten said. Even so, she said, polling indicates a large majority of teachers and parents across the country favor returning to campus in some form provided it is safe. “The reason teachers are struggling to get to in-person learning is that we are trying to help our kids.”

She added that many school districts and some states are getting it mostly right so far.

If 5% or more of a school’s population test positive for the coronavirus within a two week period of time a school must close for at least 14 days, Orange County health officials said Thursday.

“For every school in the community that has even one case of COVID, we’re going to be... talking through the issues with them about whether there’s a need to close classrooms at some point,” said Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of the Orange County Health Care Agency’s communicable disease control division.

Hickman is doing what she can to keep things safe, attaching plastic screens to each table and organizing individual school supplies for each student.

Her “teacher island” consists of an iPad on a tripod, a headset, her laptop and a smart board for writing. The setup will allow her to teach online and in person simultaneously.

The pandemic has upended the teaching methods she had all but perfected during 17 years in the classroom.

“Gone are the group projects, the art projects, the 6,000-book library. Gone is me going up to a student’s desk to help or telling them to ask a classmate,” Hickman said.

When a student has a question or requires assistance, they’ll make their way to a yellow Velcro dot on the floor that is a safe distance from her and classmates.

Irvine was the only newly opening district to bring back high school students this week.

Freshman Kathleen Curran got lost among the unfamiliar buildings and arrows meant to direct traffic with minimal interaction. She found herself five minutes late to English.

“It’s scary starting school now. I don’t really know the campus or know many people yet,” Curran said. “Most of my friends come to school on a different day.”

Senior Michael Ko, 17, lamented the loss of senior activities, but enjoyed seeing friends. Although he’s been on the soccer and track teams, he now returns home promptly at 3:10 p.m.

A man walks his two children in a school parking lot
Jordan Rincon, 9, left, arrives with her father, Tom Rincon, and 4-year-old brother Dylan for school at James H. Cox Elementary in Fountain Valley.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Outside James Cox Elementary School, a line of 3-foot-tall children carrying oversized backpacks walked in a single file line promptly at 2:15 p.m. to the parking lot. A kindergarten teacher led the fleet with a paper sign: “We survived!”

Minutes later, the bell rang and students from older grades rushed out to parents waiting scattered apart.

Kim Rincon, 42, spotted her fourth-grader Jordan.

“My fears are the same as everyone else,” Rincon said as she held 4-year-old Dylan. “I don’t want my [child] to get sick and then then bring it home and get the family sick.”

A woman squirts sanitizer into the waiting hand of a student outside school
Hala Houry provides hand sanitizer to a student returning to James H. Cox Elementary School in Fountain Valley after months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“How was school?” Rincon asked.

Jordan replied with her go-to, nonchalant response, “Oh, good.”

“I was nervous about my safety for the first day, but I’m pretty happy about being back,” she said with a shrug.

VIDEO | 06:04
LA Times Today: Orange County reopens schools

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.