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Coronavirus threat prompts Newport-Mesa, Laguna Beach, H.B. and F.V. schools to shut down classrooms

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District board of trustees voted unanimously Friday to shift to online classes starting March 20 for all of the district's 31 campuses and roughly 22,000 students in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

Students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District won’t see the inside of their classrooms until at least April 13, the district announced Friday in a measure intended to help slow the transmission of coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the Laguna Beach Unified School District decided Friday to close its schools through April 3.

In Huntington Beach, the Huntington Beach Union High School District, Huntington Beach City School District and Ocean View School District will close their schools through March 27.

The Fountain Valley School District will do the same.

The Newport-Mesa board of trustees voted unanimously at an emergency meeting to shift to online classes starting March 20 for all of the district’s 31 campuses and roughly 22,000 students in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa in response to the virus that has caused the respiratory infection COVID-19 around the globe.

No classes, however, will be held Monday through Thursday as teachers and district leaders begin phasing in online learning.

Online classes will last from at least next Friday to April 3 before the district begins its previously scheduled spring break the week of April 6.

That would put students and teachers back in their normal classroom settings no sooner than April 13, though the district may reevaluate that as the date draws closer, said Deputy Supt. Russell Lee-Sung.

Lee-Sung said Newport-Mesa does not have any confirmed cases of COVID-19, but “we are trying to do our part in line with what the state has recommended.”

“You have worked tirelessly to make sure that our students and staff stay healthy and still receive the education that they’re promised,” trustee Charlene Metoyer told Lee-Sung.

Superintendents from Orange County’s 27 public school districts made decisions in consultation with the county’s Department of Education, which advocated Friday for all area schools to suspend in-person class operations for at least two weeks.

“This is not a decision we take lightly. We know that temporarily closing a school has a tremendous impact on our families, and steps will need to be implemented to support the continuity of learning and to ensure students have access to healthy meals,” Al Mijares, Orange County superintendent of schools, said in a statement. “But the safety of our students and staff remains our top priority, and we have confidence that this is the proper precautionary course for Orange County.”

Britt Dowdy, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said the risk of infection is low and that the district is taking prudent actions. The union supports canceling in-person classes, he said.

“[Teachers are] worried about their own children that may live outside the district, they’re worried about their own health, they’re worried about the health of students,” Dowdy said.

The board also agreed to give Supt. Fred Navarro the authority to “take any and all necessary actions” to respond to COVID-19, including the option to extend closures.

“This resolution allows us to move with urgency to create a safer environment for our students and our staff and to limit the possibility of ... COVID-19 from entering our community,” Navarro said.

Student lunches will be provided for pickup at Whittier, Wilson and Pomona elementary schools in Costa Mesa from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday. The district plans to release additional information on meals soon.

Laguna Beach

The Laguna Beach Unified board voted in an emergency meeting to close the district’s four schools and halt student-related activities from Monday through April 3.

Deputy Supt. Leisa Winston said the district would make a decision by the middle of next week as to whether classes would be put online.

Supt. Jason Viloria said the schools would have a “hard close” Monday and Tuesday, meaning no staff will report to campuses while the district gets guidance from the state.

The board’s 4-1 vote, with member Dee Perry dissenting, gave Viloria the authority to take any steps necessary to protect students and faculty in relation to COVID-19. That could include relocating students and staff members and providing alternative education programs or employee sick leave.

To date, the district has not had any cases of the coronavirus, officials said.

Perry raised concerns about providing Viloria authority to make decisions without direct board approval.

“I am in favor of closing the schools,” Perry told the Daily Pilot. “I was just not in favor of having Dr. Viloria making all the decisions on when the schools reopened. I think it should be a team that decides on big decisions ... not just Dr. Viloria.”

Trustee Jan Vickers disagreed, saying: “I think we need a person in charge, and that’s what we do as a body ... we designate to various people because we don’t do the actual work ourselves. ... I have confidence that we will be continuing forward and the decisions ... will keep our students safe and attempt as best we can to continue their education.”

Trustees voted unanimously to allow Viloria to enter any contracts for any dollar amounts necessary without advertising or bidding as it pertains to the virus. That would include things such as hiring a firm to disinfect school sites, purchasing software for online instruction and providing supplies and equipment that students would need at home.

Huntington Beach

In a letter to the Huntington Beach Union High School District community Friday, Supt. Clint Harwick said the district would be closed from Monday through March 27.

The Huntington Beach City and Ocean View school districts announced they would do the same.

“Students should stay home and minimize social contacts as much as possible to keep caregivers and adult family members safe,” Harwick wrote in his letter. “HBUHSD wants to thank our communities in advance, knowing that lives will be disrupted to some extent during this fluid time.”

There are no cases of COVID-19 at district schools, Harwick said.

Ocean View board President Gina Clayton-Tarvin said her district plans to offer some online curriculum access during the closure period and that the plan to do so would be released next week. As the period ends, staff will evaluate whether to extend it.

The board voted 4-1, with trustee Norm Westwell dissenting, to designate authority to Supt. Carol Hansen to take any steps necessary in connection with COVID-19.

“We had to do what was right for students, staff and the community at large, which basically in an abundance of caution is to ensure that each student and staff member is protected and don’t have a situation where the virus is spread throughout the community,” Clayton-Tarvin said.

In the Huntington Beach City district, students will not be required to complete school work, but the district offered a list of optional at-home activities, such as journaling, building robots from household recyclables and playing or creating board games.

Fountain Valley

The Fountain Valley School District board of trustees decided Friday evening to close the district’s schools Monday through March 27.

“This is one of the most challenging decisions we had to make,” Supt. Mark Johnson said. “It’s hard to know that our kids aren’t with us. We love them. That was the challenge. But I’m also super-confident in our staff to be able to ... rally and build things we need to build for our kids.”

Johnson said staff would communicate regularly with the district community to provide educational materials and updates on possible digital learning opportunities.

“I hope the rest of our community can keep in mind the need to keep some normality in our children’s lives amid this chaos,” trustee Lisa Schultz said. “This is a prudent decision, but on the same hand, we need to continue to be there for the kids.”

Parochial schools

Orange County’s 41-campus system of Catholic schools announced Friday that it would switch to off-campus learning Monday. In-person instruction and other school activities are set to resume April 20, following the Easter break.

The system run by the Diocese of Orange includes St. Joachim and St. John the Baptist schools in Costa Mesa, St. Bonaventure and Sts. Simon & Jude schools in Huntington Beach, St. Catherine of Siena School in Laguna Beach and Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Newport Beach.

“As a community of faith, let us hold one another in prayer during this challenging time,” Erin Barisano, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Orange, said in a letter to parents. “Please pray especially for the sick, healthcare providers, public health officials and all community leaders during the weeks to come.”

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Updates:

6:36 PM, Mar. 13, 2020: This article was originally published at 3:12 p.m. and has been updated with new information.


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