County superintendent recommends keeping campuses closed to students, focusing on distance learning this school year

On Friday, March 13, school districts across Orange County made the difficult decision to temporarily dismiss students in response to COVID-19 fears and calls for social distancing. At the time we found it necessary to hit the pause button so we could better understand the novel coronavirus and its transmission. Many of our districts announced campus closures of two to three weeks and later extended those timelines based on guidance from state and local health officials.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al MijaresThis has placed our schools in a holding pattern, and it has been difficult for families to make long-term plans. Now, as we enter a new phase in our understanding of the threat, it is time to address the reality that our efforts to flatten the curve and keep students safe cannot be accomplished in the span of a few weeks or even a month. Even President Trump has called for social distancing measures to continue through April, which for many of our districts would leave only a few weeks to wrap up the school year. Therefore, in alignment with today’s statements from Governor Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, I am recommending that school districts in Orange County cancel student attendance on campuses through the end of this academic year and channel their efforts toward adopting robust and effective distance learning models.

Just a few weeks ago, no one could have imagined a circumstance that would prompt us to dismiss students from school for the rest of the semester. But the early guidance to thoroughly wash our hands and disinfect our facilities quickly turned into social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 rates in Orange County and across the U.S. have continued to climb, and the virus has intruded deeper into our lives, with reports of actors, athletes and musicians testing positive — and, for many, coworkers, friends and loved ones.

With the benefit of hindsight, there is no doubt that our school districts made the right call to dismiss students when they did. And our educators, administrators, support staff, students and families have done a masterful job of communicating with one another and building lessons that support academic continuity. But we can and must do more. Fatigued though we may be, the time has come to take a quantum leap by creating online systems that build knowledge and skills, allow for student work to be submitted and graded, support equity and socio-emotional learning, and encourage vigorous interaction between young learners and their teachers. In other words, distance learning must no longer be seen as a tool that augments the instructional program; it now must drive it.

This will be a colossal undertaking for our county — and that’s an understatement. I liken it to the race to land a man on the moon or the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt a ravaged Europe following World War II. Despite the wealth that is concentrated in and around our beach cities, we are home to high percentages of low-income families, English learners, students who are homeless and foster youth. I recognize we are starting with a playing field that is far from level, and now we lack the advantage of having our players in the same arena. But I also know this is doable, and Orange County has the potential to light the way. Already, we have staff at the Orange County Department of Education who are working around the clock to put a device in every student’s hand and provide connectivity that is available 24/7, from Brea to Dana Point. These efforts will continue to ramp up as we assess the needs and capacities of our local districts.

At the same time, we also are extremely fortunate to have partners bursting with talent and commitment. Educators in districts across the county are finding new ways to connect with their families while building effective distance learning programs in real time, and many are eager to share their discoveries. State leaders have signaled their commitment to ensuring universal access to the internet, with Governor Newsom on Wednesday announcing a landmark partnership with Google to provide 100,000 high-quality wireless access points and thousands of Chromebooks for students. Meanwhile, the College Board is teaching scores of AP subjects online and has engaged about 1.5 million students, and PBS SoCal and partner channels are airing standards-based content. Innovation is reshaping education, and these are just a few examples.

Public schools are entering a watershed moment with online learning, one born of necessity but no less transformative. I have often said that our schools should be lighthouses in our communities, and students are best served in modern classrooms where they can learn face-to-face from highly qualified teachers and engage with their peers. I still believe that, just as I believe those days will return. But that kind of physical interaction is not possible at the moment, and we must consider the possibility of future pandemics. The investments we make today are not only critical to serving our current students, they will also pay dividends down the road, positioning public schools to be more competitive and flexible. We can be virtual lighthouses, if need be.

Echoing statements from Governor Newsom, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond reaffirmed that students will likely not be able to return to their campuses before the end of the school year. At the same time, he made it clear that school is not over this year, which is consistent with our stance at the Orange County Department of Education. Students may be at home, but our schools are still open for business. And with the contributions of teachers, administrators and support staff at all levels, we can and will build programs that ensure equity, access, support and high-quality learning for all.

This is our time to aim high and reimagine what’s possible as educators. And though we may be distanced temporarily, in the service of our students we are always together.