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O.C. district won’t send middle and high schoolers back to school yet

Women protesting remote learning hold signs saying Kids must go back, This is a scam
Julia Graham, left, and Karla Rivera hold signs in protest outside the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices in Costa Mesa on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)

Thousands of middle and high school students poised to return to Newport-Mesa Unified School District campuses Monday under a hybrid learning plan will have to stay put after district officials admitted Thursday they were not prepared for the move.

Amid much confusion and debate — and as 125 demonstrators in favor of a return rallied outside the district’s Costa Mesa headquarters — board members voted 5 to 1 to delay reopening schools until no later than Dec. 17. Trustee Vicki Snell cast the lone dissenting vote. Trustee Dana Black was absent.

Thursday’s special meeting came one day after officials learned school principals had not yet figured out how to bring back large groups of students in a way that would accommodate the small, distanced cohorts required by state school reopening guidelines.

Supt. Russell Lee-Sung explained it proved too challenging to evenly break students into small groups while still assuring distanced desks and adequate teaching staff.

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As campuses begin to reopen, teachers watch anxiously, and some are raising concerns publicly, including Orange County teachers who led a protest and signed a petition.

Administrators also reported issues with the loss of student-teacher time under the hybrid plan compared with distance learning, and teachers’ office hours, which students say provide needed instructional supports.

“While we do not intend or want to change the course of action on a decision that we’ve made, we also need to be willing to adjust when necessary,” Lee-Sung told more than 1,100 viewers of Thursday’s livestreamed meeting. “Some significant challenges did arise that make this decision necessary and in the overall best interest of our staff, students and district.”

Trustees approved a plan this summer that would allow for students who had not opted into 100% virtual learning to be part of an adaptable, multilevel model that would shift from distance learning to in-person learning or a hybrid mix in response to changing county and state coronavirus guidelines.

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About 3,500 elementary school students in that model began returning to campus Sept. 29 and are currently learning in a limited-hours hybrid plan of their own.

But as the Oct. 12 reopening of secondary schools inched closer, friction mounted between those eager to see kids back in class and those who felt a return was premature and could potentially put students and teachers at risk.

Members of Newport-Mesa’s employee unions rallied in a Sept. 20 vehicle caravan to highlight concerns about instructional losses under the hybrid model and what they said were inadequacies in the implementation of school site safety plans.

A young student holds a sign that says I should be in school not protesting
Noah Evans, 13, a TeWinkle Middle School seventh-grader, holds a sign during a protest outside the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)
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On Thursday, about 125 stakeholders on the other side of the argument protested a possible delay at the district’s headquarters while Costa Mesa police officers stood by.

“We’re here advocating today for the silent majority of students who want to be going back,” said Annie Somers, Newport Harbor High School senior and co-organizer of the demonstration.

“We just thought it was unacceptable that in the 11th hour of this that teachers … and the board [are] now trying to recall the vote for us returning Oct. 12,” she continued.

Newport-Mesa parent Heather Scheck, whose children attend Ensign Intermediate and Newport Harbor High, heard about the protest on social media. She said her son was struggling from a loss of social interaction under distance learning, exacerbated by frequent technical glitches.

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“The fact that our district isn’t prepared to put the kids back to school on Monday is embarrassing and appalling,” Scheck said. “They’ve had [seven] months to prepare — it’s not something that’s been sprung upon them.”

Board President Martha Fluor reported in the meeting 999 public comments had been received on the matter — the 40 randomized responses read aloud Thursday showed community members were evenly split.

“We know that this is a very contentious and divisive issue,” Fluor said. “It has been taken [up] with the greatest of care. We are taking this very seriously.”

Principals Jake Haley and Josh Hill, of Costa Mesa and Corona del Mar high schools, respectively, explained they would build consensus in the coming weeks, working with teachers, staff and district officials to ensure a smooth transition whenever students did return.

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A delay will also give the district time to negotiate with the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers and the California School Employees Assn. over working conditions in the hybrid plan — agreements that have still not been reached more than a week after the elementary school reopenings.

Though several trustees expressed disappointment in the overall lack of readiness, there were differing opinions as to whether a delay was necessary.

San Diego County has gotten the green light to reopen schools, and Orange County officials believe they’ll soon be allowed to follow. But the picture on a school district level is far more complicated.

Trustee Michelle Barto said that although she was unhappy with the outcome, it was imperative to move forward as best as possible.

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“I think we can all acknowledge we’ve done a bad job with this. But we have to deal with what we have and where we are,” she said. “The right thing to do is what the principals have asked for, and they’ve asked for more time.”

Trustee Snell, who is running for reelection in November, openly opposed the delay.

“Everything is safe for students to return,” she said, adding that Orange County guidelines allowed schools to reopen on a modified basis starting Sept. 22. “I appreciate issues with balanced cohorts and classroom measures — but that all should have been decided ahead of time.”

Cardine and Nguyen write for Times Community News.


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