Surge in Omicron COVID-19 variant cases prompt district officials to impose new health and safety protocols, canceling this month’s Open House, sports team dinners and banquets

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Accolade Image File

Two Sunny Hills students pass out information about the school’s Engineering Pathways to Innovation and Change during the January 2018 Open House in the gym. With a surge over winter break in Omicron variant cases in Orange County, district officials have decided to cancel the Thursday, Jan. 6, Open House – the first in-person one since January 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March of that same year.

Jaimie Chun

This story was updated on Jan. 7 to reflect new information from school officials and coaches as well as  the number of positive COVID-19 cases among Sunny Hills students based on the school district’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

Thursday night, Jan. 6, would have been the first in-person Open House since two years ago before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the campus in March of 2020.

Students from the Associated Student Body [ASB] to the Pep Squad were gearing up to perform or promote their programs in front of thousands of spectators – most of whom are eighth-graders and their parents who are considering enrolling their prospective ninth-graders at Sunny Hills.

But a Dec. 30 email announcement from first-year Fullerton Joint Union High School District [FJUHSD] superintendent Steve McLaughlin put an end to the opportunity for Sunny Hills students and staff to make an impression upon prospective Lancers as well as impose other sports-related restrictions for January.

“Based on the current information, and with a clear focus on ensuring the best possible environment for learning, athletic competitions and other school related performances, we will be postponing any non-essential curricular and co-curricular activities such as assemblies, team dinners and our upcoming Open Houses through the month of January,” McLaughlin wrote in his first letter addressing COVID-19 health and safety protocols/restrictions as the district’s new superintendent.

McLaughlin’s decision to establish new guidelines in hopes of decreasing positive COVID-19-related cases among students and staff comes at a time when the FJUHSD’s COVID-19 Dashboard reports a significant spike in reported cases in each of the district’s four-year high school campuses.

Last October after nearly two months into the in-person 2021-2022 school year, Sunny Hills had a reported two cases only among students – as of Thursday, Jan. 6, that number has grown to 72; in fact, all six of the FJUHSD’s four-year high school campuses have double digit stats in positive COVID-19 reports with Troy having the most at 79 followed by Sunny Hills, according to the COVID-19 Dashboard.

In Orange County, the total number of COVID-19 positive cases as of Wednesday, Jan. 5, stands at 362,166, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency website. Of that statistic, 16,522 cases come from Fullerton.

Last October, positive COVID-19 cases in the county were nearly 60,000 lower at 303, 699, according to the agency’s website. Fullerton reported 1.042 by the end of that month.

STUDENT, STAFF REACTIONS TO OPEN HOUSE CANCELLATION

Senior ASB president Aimee Kwon said she was looking forward to performing ASB’s usual responsibilities at Open House – the ones she has witnessed as an underclassman since an in-person Open House was also canceled last year when she was a junior.

Those ASB Open House duties included handing out maps and guiding visitors to their respective locations on campus, such as in the gym, Kwon said.

“I wasn’t very surprised since the new COVID-19 variant is very widespread right now, and I personally thought it would be for the better to keep the student population safe,” she said. “ASB just won’t be planning or setting up for [Open House], so I was definitely bummed out that it’s now the second year that we aren’t able to have [in-person] events.”

Pep Squad sophomore Jacqueline Coen said she and her fellow cheerleaders had worked on a minute-long Open House routine about two weeks before the start of winter break last month.

“I was really disappointed when I first heard the announcement,” said Coen, who’s in her second year on the squad and would’ve had her first chance to attend and perform at an Open House in the gym. “This year was starting to feel normal with sports and school events completely up and running, but now, with things getting limited again, it is a bit discouraging.” 

Assistant principal Melissa Stinson, who’s in charge of coordinating Open House, echoed Kwon’s and Coen’s sentiments about the canceled event.

“It is a disappointment that we will not be able to host the high-energy, spirited Open House that we have been accustomed to sharing with our prospective students and their families prior to COVID-19,” Stinson wrote in an email statement to The Accolade. “However, the safety of our students, staff and community is by far the most important thing as we face the current surge of positive COVID cases in the county.”

Stinson had no information as to whether Open House will return as an event later this semester.

“We are currently in a holding pattern and do not have any plans for what the final outcome will be for Open House 2022,” according to Stinson’s email statement.

OMICRON HAMPERS SPRING SEMESTER STUDENT ATTENDANCE

Following the district and administration emails at the end of winter break, Sunny Hills has experienced a decrease in the number of students returning to campus for the start of the spring semester as well as more teachers choosing to stay home for health reasons.

“We also encourage anyone not feeling well to please stay home during this time,” the superintendent wrote in that Dec. 30 letter emailed to students, staff and parents. 

Contrary to the superintendent’s advice, some students have also emailed their teachers informing them that they’d rather stay home for the time being so they don’t catch anything COVID-19-related.

“Lots of friends and classmates are missing out on classes,” sophomore Madison Lee said. “It makes me realize that the virus is starting to work hard again. Seeing the empty desks makes me think, ‘We worked so hard to get where we are now only to be careless and now we are back to square one.’”

Lee said she noticed about a third of the students missing from her third period Dance 3 class while also having a substitute teacher Wednesday, Jan. 5, in her first period Advanced Placement Psychology class. Her social science teacher, David Fenstermaker, posted a message on his Google Classroom that he had tested positive for COVID-19, she said.

Even though the district is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guideline in reducing the number of quarantine days for those exposed to anyone testing positive for COVID-19 from 10 to five days, some students questioned whether the district should consider returning to a hybrid learning format to accommodate those who will be at home for a week if not more.

“Personally, I think [the district] should give an option to help those at home catch up since I know people in my classes who have been gone for all four days [this week] due to COVID-19, and they’re having a rough time understanding stuff,” junior Jay Lewis said.

UNCERTAINTY LOOMS FOR FEBRUARY-MAY CAMPUS EVENTS

The increase in students quarantining because of illness or exposure to someone testing positive for COVID-19 is also affecting programs and clubs on campus that have been looking forward to expanding their activities during the spring semester.

The Feb. 10 International Week assembly and Food Faire lunch — the first in two years and the closest upcoming ASB event — has been postponed to an unspecified date in March or April, ASB co-adviser Mike Paris told The Accolade in a Friday, Jan. 7, email interview.

“Our calendar has changed, and we try to prepare for more possible changes,” Paris said in his statement. “It can be very challenging. This will be even more difficult if the restrictions continue past February.”

The Korean Culture Club has been rehearsing its routines after school since the end of last semester in preparation for the International Week Assembly as well as its own culture night in the recently remodeled Performing Arts Center on March 19.

“Some of our subgroup members are missing, so it is a bit difficult to practice, but we’re trying to practice with the members we have,” said senior Sharon Lim, Korean Culture Club co-president. “We’re worried that we won’t be able to hold Korean Culture Night, but we’re thinking of doing a digital one if circumstances get worse.”

The district has yet to decide what will happen with non-essential activities the months following January pending what will occur with the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

OMICRON LEADS TO SEVERAL SPORTS RESTRICTIONS

Alongside Open House, Lancer sports teams are also subject to the new safety measures to reduce on-campus transmission of COVID-19 and its Omicron variant.

Athletic directors, assistant principals and the district office are working together to limit the spread of positive cases by suspending team gatherings outside of games and practices as well as contact tracing athletes who had positive results, SH athletics director Paul Jones said.

“Obviously, there’s a surge that has now come up with the Omicron variant, but I’m hopeful that sports continue, and we don’t shut down because nobody wants to have class and practice on Zoom,” Jones said. 

Student athletes like senior Dylan Lawson are disappointed at being unable to celebrate the end of a sports season. Lawson and his fellow teammates had originally planned to attend their football banquet on Jan. 5, which has since been postponed to an unspecified date.

“Banquets are always something to look forward to, especially coming off a decently successful year,” said Lawson, a three-year starter who plays wide receiver on the football team that ended the season second in the Freeway League and reached the first round of CIF playoffs. “This situation doesn’t sound like it’s going to be the same as last year, or I hope it won’t because it’s my senior year, and I wouldn’t want something as memorable as a banquet to be taken away.”

Football head coach Peter Karavedas said Friday, Jan. 7, that the team’s banquet has been reschedule for Feb. 10 at Coyote Hills Golf Course.

“I’m obviously frustrated [about the postponement],” Karavedas said. “You want to be able to celebrate the kids as soon as possible and really to put closure on last season and start preparing for the next season.”

In the past, the football team celebration would take place before the end of the fall semester, but this school year, the earliest date that the banquet venue provided was this month, the coach said.

Girls soccer is among the athletic programs on campus that holds team dinners before a game. So far this season, the team has met only once but because of the superintendent’s directive, it will no longer hold any more — at least for this month.

“Even though we bond at practice, team dinners give us more time to talk and get to know each other,” said sophomore Katie Sweeney, the team’s goalie. “I was really looking forward to them, but I understand why the administration canceled — hopefully after these restrictions are lifted we can have one before the end of the season.”

Girls soccer head coach Jeff Gordon wrote in a Friday, Jan. 7, email statement that neither he nor any of his players have come up with an alternative to create more team bonding since the dinners are now out.

“We respect the guidelines from the district during this pandemic and at the same time will miss these wonderful team dinners,” according to Gordon’s email.

As of Jan. 5, CIF has not made any public statements about the winter or spring sports seasons in light of the surge in Omicron cases. That has helped Jones remain optimistic about the rest of this semester.

“Coming into February, our hope is that events get to resume,” he said. “We’ll see what happens — we might have a different answer next week, a different answer in two weeks. We faced kind of the same thing last year when stuff is changing almost on a daily basis, so we will stay tuned and hope that it does not happen.”