Newport-Mesa says TK-6 students might return to full-day classes in the fall but readies online plans

 Adams Elementary School
Newport-Mesa elementary students can learn in a 100% virtual school or be in a program that regularly responds to shifting coronavirus orders. A plan for middle and high school students is coming soon.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials are closing in on a comprehensive plan for how the 2020-21 school year might function, whatever the coronavirus pandemic may bring, approving on Tuesday a strategy for students in grades TK-6.

Families will have the option of placing children in a 100% virtual K-12 school, to which they will commit for at least one trimester or semester and which will operate as an independent entity with its own teaching staff and principal. Former Ensign Intermediate Principal Mike Sciacca has been picked to helm the online-only school.

All other elementary students could participate in a full-day “Max 16” model that will shift in response to state and county orders issued during the pandemic.

As such, instruction could be totally in person (Level 1), totally online (Level 3) or a hybrid that has kids arriving on campuses in small cohorts that will attend morning or afternoon teaching periods with an extended learning period featuring enrichment and activities the rest of the day (Level 2).

Wednesdays will condense lessons and extended learning into a half-day morning session for all students, with teachers receiving professional development in the afternoon. At all times, there will be no more than 16 pupils in one classroom, officials stated.

Plans for a similar flexible model at middle and high schools are still being worked out and will come up for review by board members in a special meeting tentatively scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. Officials and board members promised Tuesday they would try to keep siblings at different schools on the same schedule, to the extent possible.

After conducting surveys of families and school staff, the Irvine Unified School District board voted to develop various traditional, hybrid and distance models to allow families a choice for their fall reopening.

Interim Supt. Russell Lee-Sung said because it is still unknown whether Orange County will be open or on lockdown when the school year starts on Aug. 24, officials will announce which level the sliding-model students will be starting at two weeks prior.

“We’re building a structure right now to be prepared for any contingency,” he said. “I am very concerned with the numbers — if those numbers continue to go up, it is truly jeopardizing our ability to open up the physical environment.”

Orange County health officials on Wednesday reported 911 new coronavirus cases and 22 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Among all county cases, 1,525 are children 17 and under.

District staff members plan to send out intent forms to families, so they can declare whether they’d prefer to have children attend the 100% virtual school or participate in the sliding model.

“We need to find out from parents whether they are interested in this [virtual] option,” Lee-Sung told board members. “If they do not choose that, then they’re in the three-level adaptable plan.”

A letter issued Tuesday by Reps. Harley Rouda, Linda Sanchez and Katie Porter requested a briefing with board members and county health officials on controversial guidelines released Monday.

The superintendent acknowledged while students will be distanced and areas disinfected, many more details pertaining to cleaning, bus transportation and secondary-level course offerings have yet to be worked out. Lee-Sung said he plans to return to the board in the coming weeks as those details are refined.

He did clarify that Newport-Mesa still hasn’t determined whether students will be required to wear masks if and when they do return to campuses. The Orange County Board of Education on Monday released school reopening recommendations advising against social distancing and face masks for children, claiming the measures ineffective and potentially harmful. The decision, however, rests entirely with school districts.

“This will be something we’ll bring to the board, in terms of what our requirement is going to be for masks,” Lee-Sung said Tuesday. “Right now, the guidance is saying that they should wear masks. But we have not made the final decision in terms of exactly what that means for our district.”

Board President Marth Fluor said she hopes the district will consider extending the 100% virtual school beyond the pandemic, calling it an “unbelievable opportunity” for families.

“I hope as we move forward this is a long-term proposal,” she said. “I’d hate for parents to really love this …then all of a sudden COVID-19 is over and they have to return to a school that may not be meeting the needs of their children.”

Lee-Sung said keeping the model was a distinct possibility.

“This is far too much work to do just for a temporary thing,” he responded. “It really lays a foundation for us to build upon for future years.”

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