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Newport-Mesa school district plans to continue in-person classes; sports are suspended, some events canceled

Russell Lee-Sung, deputy superintendent of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, addresses the board about coronavirus protocols during a meeting Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District said Thursday that it intends to remain open for in-person instruction at least through March, though school sports contests will be suspended starting Friday and gatherings of at least 250 people will be canceled or postponed in response to the coronavirus.

“Please note that at this time, there is no recommendation from healthcare agencies for closing our schools,” Supt. Fred Navarro said in an update to parents.

All overnight field trips for Newport-Mesa students have been canceled or postponed. All other school events, such as performances and assemblies, are being evaluated by school principals.

“Please be mindful that principals will need time to discuss and evaluate possible changes at their schools,” Navarro said. “Principals will communicate to their school communities regarding modified, postponed or canceled events and activities.”

Meanwhile, the district is preparing contingency plans to continue classes in the event school closures are ordered. It also plans to put a container of hand sanitizer in every classroom and office in the 31-campus district — as soon as the cleanser comes off back order.

Also on Thursday, two private schools in Newport Beach — Sage Hill and Harbor Day — said they will stop holding in-person classes next week and will switch to online teaching, joining a growing list of Southern California colleges and universities that are doing so in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading.

In-person classes at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Coastline College in Fountain Valley and Golden West College in Huntington Beach will go online starting next week in response to coronavirus concerns.

Newport-Mesa Deputy Supt. Russell Lee-Sung told the board of trustees Wednesday evening that while the district has plenty of cleaning supplies for its janitorial staff, schools are behind healthcare and military facilities for priority for alcohol-based hand sanitizers that can help battle the coronavirus that is causing the respiratory disease COVID-19 around the world.

“The good news is, we’re third,” Lee-Sung said at a lightly attended meeting.

The district has some sanitizer already on hand, and the bulk order should arrive next week, he said.

As for the district’s contingency plans for school closures, Lee-Sung said they are detailed but he couldn’t reveal them yet. He did say officials are nimble.

“In the appropriate time, if that becomes the case we will be here in front of you, we will be here in front of the public, to share that with you,” he said. “If the notice comes, whether that’s tomorrow, a week from now or months from now, we will be ready.”

The district said earlier this week that it was considering limiting field trips to help reduce the potential for spreading the virus and announced 14-day self-quarantine procedures for students or staff who have traveled in the past 14 days to China, Iran, Italy or South Korea — where the spread has been widest and most sustained — as well as anyone who has been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

International transfer students from “any affected area” must self-quarantine for 14 days from the date of arrival in the United States and will be asked to volunteer travel information to the district.

Absences for illness and self-quarantine will be excused, the district said. Absences by students who apparently have not been exposed but fear catching the virus are unexcused.

Merry Graska, Newport-Mesa’s director of health services, said every school has nurses or health assistants who can take temperatures and ask children who feel ill about their symptoms and recent travel or activities.

“It might be a simple question about what they did last weekend or yesterday or last week,” she said.

If health staff members have any concern that a child might have coronavirus, they will call the parents for more information and send the child home if he or she registers a fever or has other symptoms associated with the virus.

The school district cannot diagnose COVID-19 but will call the Orange County Health Care Agency for guidance, as it would do for chicken pox, Graska said.

Sage Hill School, in Newport Coast, will shift to online learning next week and cancel practices and other extracurricular activities before going on its scheduled spring break the week of March 23. School leaders plan to resume regular operations March 30.

“This situation is rapidly evolving, and in these extraordinary circumstances, our Sage Hill community must come together to help one another, to show care and compassion for those who are vulnerable and to each do our part in service of the greater good,” Patricia Merz, Sage Hill’s head of school, said in an announcement Thursday.

Harbor Day School, in Corona del Mar, told parents to have their children ready for “virtual school” by 8 a.m. Tuesday.

“We did not make this decision lightly,” Angi Evans, Harbor Day’s head of school, said in a message to parents. “While we have not yet had either a case of or known exposure to COVID-19 reported within our community, guidance from health experts is increasingly to operate under the assumption that distancing will help slow the spread.”

Vanguard University in Costa Mesa said it will expand its spring break to start a week earlier, beginning Friday, and continue for two weeks. Students at the private Christian university are scheduled to return to class March 30, but the school may decide to hold classes online.

Here are the situations in other local districts that had announced their plans for classes and events as of Thursday afternoon:

  • Huntington Beach City School District: In-person classes continuing, but some events canceled
  • Huntington Beach Union High School District: In-person classes continuing, but some events canceled and athletic competitions suspended
  • Fountain Valley School District: In-person classes continuing, but some events canceled
  • Laguna Beach Unified School District: In-person classes continuing

Daily Pilot staff writer Faith E. Pinho contributed to this report.

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Updates

5:46 PM, Mar. 12, 2020: This article was originally published at 4:05 p.m. and has been updated with new information.


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