The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Orange County in late January 2020, but few could have imagined the full-blown pandemic that would follow, let alone its impact on schools.
At a time of great uncertainty, Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares connected with Orange County Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau, and the two began meeting regularly with local superintendents to share guidance and best practices.
The steady partnership between Dr. Chau and Dr. Mijares was recognized by the Orange County School Boards Association during its annual dinner meeting at the Irvine Marriott on Wednesday, April 20. Together, they were given the prestigious Maureen DiMarco Award.
“I am humbled to receive this award and honored to share it with Dr. Clayton Chau, who has been a lifeline for our schools and communities,” said Superintendent Mijares.
The award, which recognizes an individual or an organization for exemplary and far-reaching leadership in service of young people, was named in honor of Maureen DiMarco, who served as California’s first cabinet secretary for child development and education, President of the California School Boards Association, and President of the Orange County School Boards Association.
Criteria for the award includes inspiring others to take action and exhibiting vision in addressing the needs of young people across Orange County.
On the same night, Orange County Board of Education member Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez was presented the Marian Bergeson Award along with Huntington Beach Union High School District trustee Dr. Michael Simons.
An unprecedented crisis
The pivot to distance learning in March 2020 represented an extraordinary shift that, in many cases, required educators to learn new systems and prepare for new methods of instruction within days. Under Mijares’ leadership, OCDE staff distributed nearly 1,800 hotspots to help local districts and charter schools expand connectivity, and the department collaborated with the school districts and charters to deliver about 500 laptops.
In May of 2020, Dr. Clayton Chau took the helm as the Orange County Health Officer and immediately connected with Dr. Mijares to support schools, often engaging in phone calls late into the evening and on weekends. Together, they led a coalition of Orange County superintendents and OCDE administrators to develop a comprehensive web-based guide for safely reopening schools based on guidance from the California Department of Public Health.
In the months that followed, Orange County superintendents met weekly to review updated guidance and trends at the local, state and national levels with Mijares and Chau, who also initiated calls with charter and private school leaders to address concerns.
“The collaboration that has taken place among our school districts and the OC Health Care Agency has been a success story worth heralding,” Dr. Mijares said. “From the onset of the pandemic, superintendents and other educational leaders have been in constant communication with Dr. Chau and his team to discuss the latest state and local orders, as well as best practices for ensuring the health and safety of our students and staff. That collaboration has only expanded as we focus on other critical needs in Orange County, including mental health.”
Safely reopening schools
The strength of the partnership between Dr. Chau and Dr. Mijares enabled Orange County schools to be among the first in the state to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. The two agencies further made it a top priority to support the mental and physical health and well-being of returning students.
Dr. Chau and Dr. Mijares also teamed up with local school districts to establish education-specific PODs — short for points of dispensing — to offer voluntary COVID-19 vaccines for school employees. The first school POD opened at La Quinta High School in the Garden Grove Unified School District in February 2021. By the following May, teams of school nurses had administered more than 21,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses.
During surges in the pandemic, both agencies collaborated to help provide nurses for COVID testing and contact tracing to school districts, ensuring that schools staying open were the priority. More recently, OCDE and the Health Care Agency worked together to pursue grant funding to hire seven regional mental health coordinators, creating a countywide infrastructure to strengthen procedures and protocols around mental health resources for students.
Both agency leaders are committed to providing additional social- emotional support and mental health resources for students, families, and staff. They will continue to make this their priority moving forward.
“I also want to express my gratitude to school board members who exhibited tremendous leadership during extraordinarily trying times,” Dr. Mijares said.
Enhancing public education
Also receiving recognition at the same event was Orange County Board of Education trustee Beckie Gomez and Dr. Michael Simons from the Huntington Beach Union High School District Board of Trustees. They each won the Marian Bergeson Award, which was established in 1974 to recognize school board members who promote and enhance public education through their leadership and community service.
Its namesake, the late Marian Bergeson, was a legendary political figure, serving on the California State Assembly, the California State Senate and the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
In her role as a board trustee, Gomez has met with teachers and other school staff members to learn what schools need and to share how she and OCDE can support the work of local districts. The Orange County School Boards Association recognized Gomez for “consistently promoting and enhancing public education, remaining determined and focused on best meeting the needs of all the students in our county.”
Dr. Michael Simons was first appointed to fill a vacancy on the HBUHSD Board of Trustees in 1991 and has since stayed. He led the charge in ensuring the community had opportunities to be part of the district’s COVID-19 response. The OCSBA recognized Dr. Simons for being a “community servant who believes in public education as a cornerstone of our democracy.”