2022 in Review: A look back at some of the OCDE Newsroom’s most notable stories

collection of featured story images from 2022

2022 began inauspiciously enough, with a massive Covid-19 spike that caused widespread absences following winter break. But then case rates fell just as quickly as they rose, and there were plenty of other educational storylines that went on to define the year.

From January through December, the Orange County Department of Education celebrated county and state Teachers of the Year, established pop-up schools for Afghan refugees, and helped open a public park honoring the landmark Mendez v. Westminster case. At the same time, local schools also had to cope with more pandemic fallout, wildfires and the destructive encroachment of fentanyl.

We’ll sidestep the cliches about how this was a year like no other (even though it really was a year like no other). Here’s a look back at some of our most notable stories from the past 12 months.


COVID rates rise and fall dramatically, and masking rules are eased

student wearing a mask in a classroom
Public health officials cited declining case rates and hospitalizations as the basis for easing restrictions in 2021.

As students returned from winter recess, OC schools were taking a number of steps to reduce on-campus transmission of COVID-19, from enforcing state mask mandates and quarantine protocols to tracking new cases, reporting close contacts and issuing testing kits. But in January 2022, the omicron variant sent rates surging to unprecedented levels, causing widespread absences and staffing shortages. By February, case rates and hospitalizations were on the decline, and California’s indoor masking order for schools was downgraded to a strong recommendation on March 12.

OCDE makes surprise visits to announce the Orange County Teachers of the Year

Ben Case with Al Mijares
County Superintendent Al Mijares, left, congratulates Northwood High School instrumental music teacher Ben Case, who was one of five California Teachers of the Year.

In May, six of the best and brightest teachers in Orange County had their lesson plans interrupted — but for a very good reason. Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, along with camera crews, reporters, sponsors and a handful of OCDE representatives on a big yellow bus called the “Prize Patrol,” visited six different campuses to announce the 2023 Orange County Teachers of the Year. More good news came in October when Ben Case, an instrumental music instructor from Northwood High School in Irvine, was also named one of five California Teachers of the Year for 2023.

Park honoring historic Mendez v. Westminster civil rights case opens to the public

Sylvia Mendez and city officials
Sylvia Mendez, center, celebrates with local officials as statues of her parents, Felicitas and Gonzolo Mendez, are unveiled.

Mendez Tribute Monument Park officially opened to visitors this year. On Dec. 1, the City of Westminster formally debuted a new quarter-acre public space honoring the landmark Mendez v. Westminster case, which put an end to forced segregation in California’s public schools and laid the foundation for the U.S. Supreme Court’s sweeping Brown v. Board decision. A ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony marked the completion of the five-year project, which represented a collaboration between the city and OCDE. Guests included Sylvia Mendez, a central figure to the civil rights case who has championed its awareness.

Westminster High welcomes 60,000 honey bees to school

Westminster High School Beekeeping Program
Westminster High agriculture instructor Dave Eusantos and student Mayra Bahena helped start the state’s first high school beekeeping program.

A lot of attention was swarming around a new addition to the agriculture science program at Westminster High, which launched the state’s first high school beekeeping program with 60,000 honey bees. “The most important insect in agriculture is the honeybee,” explained agricultural instructor Dave Eusantos. “By having the students learn about the lifecycle and the products that you’re able to get from the honeybees, it really ties in the different parts of agriculture — the crop production side of it to the specialty products that can be made from the honey that you can get from the bees as well.” 

OC students outperform peers on assessments that reflect pandemic-era disruptions

Orange County students scored consistently higher in English, math and science than their peers on standardized tests in 2022.

Along with marking the first full year of in-person instruction in the age of COVID-19, the 2021-22 school year saw the return of universal testing to show student mastery of state standards. As expected, assessment results released by the California Department of Education in the fall revealed the academic impacts of pandemic-era disruptions, underscoring the need for ongoing accelerated learning and support. Yet they also showed that Orange County students continued to outperform their peers across California. In December, state educational officials also brought back the California School Dashboard based on data from the 2021-22 school year.

OCDE educators establish pop-up schools for Afghan students whose families assisted the U.S.

Student high-fiving teacher
OCDE’s Alternative Education program schooled about 60 Afghan students at area hotels, where they had taken up temporary residence.

Over President’s Day weekend, teachers from OCDE’s Alternative Education program gathered at an Irvine hotel to transform a business center into a one-room schoolhouse. Supplies were unpacked, computers were set up and colorful posters featuring commonly used English words were hung on the center’s walls to greet children who were part of a wave of immigrants from Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of their country. With the help of the U.S. government, approximately 75,000 Afghans were relocated to American cities, including about 500 refugees in Orange County.

Using assistive technology, OCDE student tells the Angels to ‘Play ball!’

Greyson, a student at OCDE's Harbor Learning Center, with Duey Luu, a staff member from his group home, and OCDE Speech and Language Specialists Art Marmelejo and Paul DePerry.
Greyson Belles, a student at OCDE’s Harbor Learning Center, made the ceremonial “Play ball!” announcement at an Angels home game in May.

“Play ball!” … Greyson Belles served up those time-honored words to signal the start of an evening game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Nationals on May 6. Greyson, who is enrolled in OCDE’s Special Education program, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a severe developmental delay that prevents him from communicating verbally. He relies on a speech-generating device to convey his thoughts and feelings, and he’s believed to be the first student to use that technology to start a game at Angel Stadium.

OC experts convene to discuss fentanyl dangers and prevention strategies

Al Mijares speaking to audience
County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares was one of several speakers during a fentanyl education and prevention forum.

For the first time in the county’s history, fentanyl has emerged as the No. 1 cause of death for children under the age of 18, according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes. In November, the sheriff was joined by County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, Superior Court Judge Maria D. Hernandez and experts from UC Irvine during a forum that examined the devastating impacts of fentanyl on Orange County youth. Several speakers discussed the importance of naloxone, a life-saving emergency medication that can rapidly reverse an opioid poisoning and restore breathing.

OCDE’s Alternative Education students explore Careers Without Borders

Greyson, a student at OCDE's Harbor Learning Center, with Duey Luu, a staff member from his group home, and OCDE Speech and Language Specialists Art Marmelejo and Paul DePerry.
Football hall-of-famer Ronnie Lott shared his story during an OCDE Careers Without Borders presentation.

From actors and astronauts to professional sports hall-of-famers, OCDE’s Careers Without Borders program brought more professionals from varying fields to the computer screens of students in OCDE’s Alternative Education program. The guest speaker series was originally launched in 2020 to open students up to different career paths and to instill confidence in their personal journeys.

State and county officials offer support to schools impacted by Coastal Fire

Wood Canyon Elementary Principal Chris Dembiec, CUSD Board of Education President Martha McNicholas, County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, CUSD Superintendent Kirsten M. Vital Brulte and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond
Wood Canyon Principal Chris Dembiec updated Capistrano school board President Martha McNicholas, County Superintendent Al Mijares, Capistrano Superintendent Kirsten M. Vital Brulte and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond.

With their own campus temporarily closed as a result of the Coastal Fire, more than 300 students from Moulton Elementary School in the Capistrano Unified School District were directed to nearby Wood Canyon Elementary on May 12. The next day, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares visited the new classes to offer their support and to hear about the efforts made to ensure young learners weren’t falling behind while evacuation orders were in place. 

MTSS framework supported by OCDE ensures students are ready to learn

Palm Vista Elementary School library
MTSS is a comprehensive framework that provides differentiated interventions based on each student’s needs.

In 2016, OCDE was tapped by the state to scale up California’s Multi-Tiered System of Support framework, which aligns new and existing strategies to meet each student’s academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs. This year, more than 2,500 educators from across the state gathered in Anaheim for the fifth annual California MTSS Professional Learning Institute. A few months later, the OCDE Newsroom profiled the first California school to have the majority of its staff complete an MTSS certification course led by the department.