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As Schools Reopen In Orange County, Who’s Making Sure They’re Doing It Safely?

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St. John's Lutheran in the city of Orange has spaced desks further apart (Courtesy Jake Hollatz)
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This week, more schools in Orange County with approved reopening waivers are planning to welcome students and staff back on to campus for in-person learning. Most of them are private schools, though Los Alamitos Unified will also be reopening its elementary campuses with a “hybrid” model, too.

But who’s actually making sure those schools are adhering to their promised safety plans?

To apply for and obtain a waiver to reopen, school and district officials had to submit their reopening plans to county and state public health officials.

I read through a bunch of them and they list a variety of modifications.

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  • In Harbor Day School’s application, for example, school officials say they hired an additional janitor to “provide routine cleaning of door handles, faucets, bathrooms,outdoor furniture and equipment, handrails, etc.”
  • In Los Alamitos Unified’s safety plan, district officials assert that each of the school’s campuses will have “a designated isolation room to hold staff or students who show symptoms while at school.”

Almost all of the schools that have applied in Orange County have had their reopening plans approved. None had been denied as of September 4.
What’s unclear, though, is how the county plans to make sure schools follow through on their safety plans.

I spoke with the principal of a school that reopened last month, St. John’s Lutheran in the city of Orange. He said after the waiver was officially approved, public health officials didn’t check in on his school as they prepared to reopen.

And at the county’s most recent press update, officials confirmed that there are no “on-site reviews of schools,” saying that wasn’t part of the criteria laid out by the state.

Margaret Bredehoft, the deputy agency director for public health services explained:

“We're just here for support. It is probably incumbent upon the schools to be able to adhere to that.”

Bredehoft added that the county health officials do have weekly calls with superintendents and school officials.
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“That's about the extent of our enforcement,” Bredehoft said.

County Executive Officer Frank Kim later added that if officials did discover that a school had reopened without following the proper procedures, he’d “absolutely have a discussion with my health officer about potentially taking enforcement action” – including closing down the school – and that they’d also consult with the state as part of that process.

“I think it's very important for us to protect our children,” Kim said.

The California Department of Public Health briefly touches on enforcement in its FAQ on school reopenings. Referring to the Governor’s executive orders, the department says violations of state public health orders are misdemeanors, and violators could be fined.

We will continue to follow and report on the reopening of schools. If you have information or experiences you think we should know about, you can reach out to me – reporter Carla Javier – at cjavier@scpr.org.

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