With a new year comes hope for a better tomorrow. This has never been more true. Here, we reflect on 2020 and anticipate the year ahead in education.
In mid-March, Orange County students were sent home for what many parents and teachers assumed would be a two-week period, just until this COVID thing got sorted out. Soon the stay-at-home order stretched ahead indefinitely as guidelines shifted and the word “pivot” became a regular part of our lexicon.
“It is impossible to overstate the challenges our schools were presented with this year,” said Orange County Superintendent of Schools Al Mijares, Ph.D.
But the Orange County education community came together to navigate a year unlike any other.
“Every step of the way, our teachers, students, support staff and families demonstrated extraordinary resilience, working as partners to minimize barriers to learning during the worst public health threat in a century,” Mijares said.
In this new year, there are still many unknowns — but there has been progress. Now is the time to reflect on Orange County’s state of education in 2020 and look toward the new year ahead.
School Guidelines Uncertainty
Orange County schools headed into the 2020/21 school year in the fall with much uncertainty. Faculty and families worked together to prepare the safest way to bring students back to school.
“We may not be able to have all 30 kids in at once,” Fullerton middle school teacher and former mayor Jesus Silva told Parenting OC in a May interview. “So how do we do that?”
A Back-to-School Survey conducted by Deloitte, showed that 66 percent of K-12 parents in the U.S. were anxious about sending their kids back to school and 52 percent of parents were unsure how school would start. Heritage Oak Private School President Greg Cygan said the uncertainty was draining. “Not knowing what to expect, not understanding how long we would be in a distance mode was a tremendous burden on our families and our teaching staff,” Cygan said.
In June, the Orange County Department of Education released operational guidelines for the reopening of Orange County’s public schools, along with a checklist and attestation. “Orange County Together: A Guide to Safely Reopening Schools in the COVID-19 Era” was approved by the Orange County Health Officer on June 12, 2020. Then on July 13, the Orange County Board of Education, which is a different agency from the Orange County Department of Education, voted on a return to in-class instruction, without masks or social distancing in a 4-1 vote, raising the eyebrows of district officials and causing confusion in the community. Ultimately, however, the OC Board’s guidelines were declared non-binding and, stated Mijares, “locally elected school boards and superintendents will approve and implement plans specific to their districts based on the needs of their schools and communities.”
Districts pressed on by hammering out their own individual guidelines, as coronavirus cases surged. Most districts favored options for families with choices ranging from 100 percent on-campus learning to 50 percent on-campus learning and 50 percent home supplementary activities or 100 percent online with teacher support. Fullerton School District, Capistrano Unified School District and Newport-Mesa Unified School District had all announced reopening plans that utilized their own versions of a hybrid model in early July.
But almost as quickly as reopening plans were being released, they were also being modified. The Santa Ana Unified School District initially approved a reopening plan that allowed parents the option of having their children take all classes online or utilize a hybrid of online and in-class education. But a press release on July 14 announced a change. “Santa Ana Unified School District will pivot entirely to distance learning to start the upcoming school year out of concern for the safety and well-being of the entire community,” the statement read.
Many districts followed suit when during an afternoon briefing on July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Orange County schools, and other campuses on California’s COVID-19 county watch list, would start the year with distance learning rather than in-person instruction or hybrid models. “Students, staff and parents all prefer in-classroom instruction,” Newsom said, “but only if it can be done safely.”
Districts pivoted yet again. Fullerton School District, Newport-Mesa Unified School District, Santa Ana Unified School District, Tustin Unified School District and Irvine Unified School District all started the 20/21 school year in distance-learning mode.
Private schools navigated the change differently.
“Fairmont received a waiver from Orange County health authorities, allowing us to reopen for on-campus instruction in August,” said Danyelle Knight Woodley, marketing and communications director at Fairmont Private Schools. “This speaks to the rigors of the safety protocols we developed and our ability to implement them.”
On Sept. 8, Orange County’s status on the state’s infection monitoring list shifted from Tier 1 to Tier 2 and two weeks later, Orange County school districts began the process of reopening. An October study conducted by Burbio projected that more than 60 percent of K-12 public school students in the United States would be attending schools that offer in-person learning by Election Day.
“All students began the year with distance learning,” said Christina Hanna, a sixth-grade teacher in Irvine Unified School District. “Then about three weeks after, we had students return to school.”
Besides Irvine Unified, Tustin Unified, Fountain Valley and Cypress school districts returned to school campuses for in-person instruction the week of Sept. 21. Capistrano Unified, Saddleback Valley Unified, Orange Unified, Newport-Mesa Unified and Ocean View school districts followed the week after.
“Thanks to our teachers and staff, we were able to open our elementary campuses full-time in September using Extended Learning,” said Ryan Burris, chief communications officer at Capistrano Unified School District, “which supports instructional minutes while adhering to the health and safety requirements of the California Department of Public Health. We are perhaps the largest school district in the State of California to offer a full-time option for elementary families.”
By Sarah Mosqueda
(Photos Courtesy of Heritage Oak Private School)