Mijares: As OC exits the COVID-19 watch list, health officials keep an eye on local hotspots

With the number of new COVID-19 cases declining, and a relatively low testing positivity rate, Orange County has made its way off the state’s monitoring list.

This is an extremely positive development and a testament to the local communities that have pulled together to reinforce the effectiveness of face coverings and physical distancing. It also brings schools within our county a step closer to resuming in-person instruction, but we’re not there just yet.

Orange County must remain off the state’s watch list for 14 consecutive days, which, with our current trajectory, takes us just beyond Labor Day weekend. Meanwhile, county health officials are cautioning that transmission rates continue to exceed state thresholds in specific ZIP codes, creating localized hotspots in Orange County where in-person instruction may not be recommended at this time.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al MijaresReopening for in-person instruction is a district decision, guided by the local health officer. Many factors must be considered, including, most critically, the health and safety of students and staff. To that end, our districts are working closely with the OC Health Care Agency to monitor community data and will seek guidance from the agency’s director to help determine when local conditions allow them to safely resume in-person instruction with modified or hybrid models.

Since last spring, school districts have been pursuing enhanced distance learning options while simultaneously working toward a resumption of in-person instruction. This has involved countless hours of planning in consultation with stakeholders and partner agencies, including the Orange County Department of Education, the OC Health Care Agency and the California Department of Public Health. In short, we believe we have the plans, protocols and facility modifications necessary to maximize safety once physical classes resume. But we also need your help.

As we track Orange County’s COVID-19 dashboard, and count the number of days our county has spent off the watch list, I encourage you to discuss with your child what a return to school will look like. Reinforce the importance of hand-washing, physical distancing and face coverings as ways we can help keep our community safe. And if your child has any underlying health issues, please schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to talk about risk factors for vulnerable children. While children have shown less severe symptoms associated with the coronavirus, Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau affirms that underlying conditions, including obesity and diabetes, put children at a much higher risk for serious illnesses.

“We will have to discuss risks for vulnerable children, as well as addressing health issues in children such as obesity, diabetes, etc.,” he told the Orange County Register.

The past six months have represented an extraordinary time in our history, forcing educators and parents to familiarize themselves with the language and data used by epidemiologists. None of this has been easy, and we’ve seen our share of differing opinions and reconsidered assumptions.

Yet one thing we can all agree on is our desire to welcome students back to safe and equitable learning environments, where they can engage with teachers and socialize with peers. We also want to do everything possible to protect the health of our valued teachers and staff members, and we must do our part to prevent our campuses from becoming widespread drivers of community transmission, which could reverse the progress we’ve made.

For these reasons, we will continue to closely follow the guidance of our public health partners, including the county Health Care Agency and the California Department of Public Health.

We are not out of the woods yet, but there are promising signs that our county is moving in the right direction. With continued vigilance, and your partnership, we can turn this corner and safely welcome students back to the classroom, together.