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State’s watch list extends to school reopenings, possibly keeping Orange County closed

An empty Newport Harbor High School field is shown above on July 7.
An empty Newport Harbor High School field is shown above on July 7.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The statewide summer spike in coronavirus spread means Orange County’s children aren’t going back to their classrooms in the fall.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Friday that schools cannot physically reopen until their counties have been off the state’s coronavirus watch list for 14 consecutive days affirms a full-time online plan that some local districts, like Santa Ana Unified, had already decided for the coming school term — but foils others such as Newport-Mesa Unified, which tentatively decided this week to start preparing for a hybridized plan.

Orange County went on the state monitoring list in late June as COVID-19 hospitalizations and transmission accelerated. As of Friday, hospitalizations had stabilized enough to drop below the state threshold, but Orange County remained on the state’s radar for its testing positivity rate of 13.9%. It was among 32 counties on the list Friday.

A set of guidelines adopted by the O.C. Board of Education advising schools reopen without masks and social distancing has ties to an anti-union, pro-charter school group opening an Orange County campus in August.

Laguna Beach parent Julie Carver said she felt that distance learning in the spring went “OK” but said that she would prefer to have her three children in school and have them wear masks while a teacher stood behind plexiglass.

“I don’t know why they can’t go back to school, but I understand what the governor’s saying. I don’t think it’s fair to compare Laguna Beach, which is such a small district, to Irvine or Newport, where it’s so much bigger. I feel that it should be for each school district, not the county as a whole,” Carver said.

Carver’s eldest will be an incoming senior at Laguna Beach High School, while her two younger children will be a junior and an eighth-grader at Thurston Middle School.

“I think it’s one of the saddest things that these kids are missing out on these opportunities that are once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” she said. “To be with their friends, be with their teachers and have those interactions as a senior … there’s all these rites of passage in Laguna Beach. They have pool parties. They go to Knott’s Berry Farm. If they miss out on that, I think it’s horrible.”

The marquee at Huntington Beach High School on Friday, July 17, 2020.
The marquee at Huntington Beach High School, in Huntington Beach on Friday, July 17, 2020.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Newsom’s plan for schools that do return to campus include mask requirements for all staff and students from grades 3-12, with masks or face shields recommended for younger children. It also outlines when students should be sent back home: A full classroom goes home when there is a confirmed case, a school goes home when multiple classrooms have cases or more than 5% of the school is positive, and a district closes if 25% of its schools are closed within a 14-day period.

Orange County had a total of 28,309 coronavirus cases as of Friday and 469 deaths. Of those, 405 cases and three deaths were newly reported. County hospitals had 682 coronavirus patients, with 235 in intensive care.

Over the last two weeks, Orange County, along with Riverside and San Bernardino counties, have reported worse coronavirus case rates per capita than L.A. County, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Here are the latest cumulative case counts and deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 5,324 cases; 123 deaths
  • Anaheim: 4,862 cases; 115 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 1,387 cases; 43 deaths
  • Irvine: 924 cases; seven deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 884 cases; five deaths
  • Newport Beach: 679 cases; three deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 282 cases; eight deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 106 cases; fewer than five deaths

“The one thing we have the power to do to get our kids back into school is look at this list again: Wear a mask. Physically distance. Wash your hands. Minimize the mixing,” Newsom said at his Friday news conference. “The more we do on this list, and we do it at scale, the quicker all those counties are going to come off that monitoring list. We’re going to mitigate the spread of this virus, and those kids are back in school.”

How the first day of school will look is not yet determined at Newport-Mesa, which starts the fall semester Aug. 24. The board of trustees tentatively decided on Tuesday to bring back elementary school pupils in small classroom groups, while also giving parents the option to continue with online learning full time. The district had not yet considered a plan for middle and high school students.

A sign at Newport Harbor High School states all school district schools are closed.
A sign at Newport Harbor High School states all Newport-Mesa Unified School District schools are closed, pictured Friday, July 17, 2020.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Acting Supt. Russell Lee-Sung said in a statement that the district will review the state directives “and will make a determination for our district based on the criteria.” The instructional format — in person, fully remote or a blend — will be determined at least two weeks prior to the start of the fall term.

Ocean View School District Supt. Carol Hansen said her Huntington Beach district is moving forward with developing its similar three options.

“If the number of COVID-19 cases do not decrease in Orange County, all OVSD schools and students will begin school via a rigorous distance learning model,” she said in a statement to families. “However, it is important to note that the start of school, Sept. 9, is still more than seven weeks away.”

But Scott Capifoni’s daughter isn’t coming back.

The rising sixth-grader previously attended Ocean View’s Village View Elementary. Now, she will be home-schooled with support from Excel Academy, a charter school based in Irvine.

Californians have expressed anger at politicians over the pandemic. After a second shutdown, many turn anger on each other for not being careful.

Capifoni said he considered the final three months of the last school year to be a waste for his daughter, and he was not going to take a chance on her having a similar experience.

“We have zero faith in the state board of education and the local district to be able to handle this situation,” Capifoni said. “The online schooling that they tried to implement was awful. I had a feeling back in the spring this is going to continue into the fall, schools weren’t going to be able to deal with this.”

“Rather than wait and see what they were going to do in the fall, we decided, ‘Let’s at least go through a school program that knows how to deliver online content and knows how to do remote learning,’ and that’s what we elected to do.”

Capifoni added that his son, a recent graduate of Marina High School, did not care for online classes either and has opted to delay his starting term at Chico State University.

Anita Santoro, an accounting technician at Corona del Mar High School, said she has faith in distance learning at the middle school and high school levels, but she added that more issues have to be addressed.

“We have to remember most of the world is also still navigating [the coronavirus] so I’m not worried about our kids falling behind,” Santoro said. “Mental health issues should also be discussed, as well. I know many kids are hurting, but [it is] also on parents to help to that end and not solely rely on the teachers and schools for that.”

Fountain Valley High School Principal Morgan Smith said that his school will prepare for both scenarios, whether Orange County schools are allowed to open or not.

“We’ll plan for a return to school but prepare for distance learning,” Smith said. “Hopefully, Orange County’s numbers improve, and we make it off the governor’s watch list. The safety of our students and staff is the highest priority. We have the best teachers in the state and will support them with everything I can do to ensure their success in any dynamic.”

The state mandates come a few days after the advisory Orange County Board of Education issued a nonbinding, but controversial, recommendation to return to in-person learning without requiring physical distancing or requiring masks. The board’s guidelines — which called for daily temperature checks, frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, in addition to the nightly disinfection of classrooms, offices and transportation vehicles, among other measures — differ from orders issued by the Orange County Department of Education.

In a statement, County Supt. of Schools Al Mijares said his department will do everything it can to support distance learning.

And he encouraged physical distancing and masks in public.

“The governor has made it clear what will need to happen to resume in-person learning, as well as the steps we must take to keep our students, staff and families safe when we do come back together,” he said.

Start dates, 2020-21 school year:

  • Newport-Mesa Unified: Aug. 24
  • Huntington Beach City: Sept. 10
  • Huntington Beach Union High School: Sept. 2
  • Ocean View: Sept. 9
  • Fountain Valley: Sept. 9
  • Laguna Beach Unified: Aug. 24
  • Garden Grove Unified (Los Amigos High School): Aug. 24

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