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Protesters claim Newport-Mesa Unified plan to start school year under 4x4 model would harm students

Students walk along Eastbluff Drive in front of Corona del Mar High School on Monday.
Students walk along Eastbluff Drive in front of Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach on Monday as they protest against the new 4x4 learning schedule adopted by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for the 2020-21 school year.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

About 200 students, parents and teachers converged at Corona del Mar High School on Monday to protest a learning model recently adopted by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District they claim is stressful, unrealistic and potentially harmful to students.

Signs reading “I Deplore 4x4” and “Opt Out Now” prompted a volley of honks from passing Newport Beach motorists as protesters chanted against a new 4x4 model adopted by school board members in a July 21 special meeting for the upcoming academic year beginning Aug. 24.

The measure was adopted 5-2, with trustees Michelle Barto and Karen Yelsey, the latter of whom represents the Corona del Mar school community, opposed.

Parent Jen Schaefer, whose two children attend Corona del Mar High, said the community was shocked to hear a new model was adopted with little community input or outreach. Parents and teachers say they only learned about the meeting and proposal on July 19.

“All of us Corona del Mar parents and teachers were like, ‘Where was our voice?’” Schaefer said of the meeting, which featured a panel of teachers and administrators explaining why they favored the new schedule.

“No opposing views were presented,” Schaefer continued. “It was almost like propaganda.”

Students Ryan Tanner, Ryann McTague, and Emma Heilman, from left, march along Eastbluff Drive in Newport Beach.
Students Ryan Tanner, left, Ryann McTague, center, and Emma Heilman protest along Eastbluff Drive, across the street from Corona del Mar High School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Under the 4x4 block schedule, learners would complete half of their courses for the year in an 80-day fall semester, attending classes five days per week. Returning from winter break, they would finish their course load in a 100-day spring semester, also meeting daily.

In a statement issued Monday, Newport-Mesa Unified Board President Martha Fluor said the district plans to provide additional information on the 4x4 model that directly responds to issues posed. She maintained the model has multiple benefits for students and teachers.

“This model provides greater connections among teachers and students, if in-person instruction is not possible,” Fluor said in the statement. “This model relieves stress due to students and teachers only having to focus on 3-4 classes at a time, as opposed to 6-8. Teachers also will have half the amount of students to focus on each semester, therefore allowing for greater connections and supports, crucially important during this time.”

Proponents claim the new model is flexible enough to transition from in-person classes, to online only, to a hybrid mix — a must if NMUSD schools are to respond to shifting orders coming down from state and Orange County officials during a continuing coronavirus pandemic.

And online classes are looking like a distinct possibility, after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced schools in Orange, Los Angeles and other counties whose infection rates are being monitored by the state would be forced to continue distance learning in the new school year.

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 what some local districts, like Santa Ana Unified, have already decided for the coming school term — but foils others such as Newport-Mesa Unified.

Despite seeing massive spikes in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations earlier this month, the Orange County Health Care Agency on Monday reported 273 new cases and just two deaths from COVID-19.

With about 393,324 tests issued — and a current positivity rate of 11.7% — the number of Orange County residents who’ve recovered is about 20,148, officials estimate. About 661 people are currently being hospitalized due to the virus, with 204 being treated in intensive care units.

Among those who turned out for Monday’s protest, all observed social distancing and answered interview questions through masks and facial coverings.

Opponents of Newport-Mesa’s new plan say the 4x4 model presents too many logistical challenges — student stress chief among them — as it condenses an entire year of content into a single semester.

“I don’t feel it’s a way I can learn,” said incoming freshman Faith Chavez, who came with friends to Corona del Mar, where she attended middle school. “You have to learn a whole year in four months. It’s going to hurt our mental health.”

A student stands in front of Corona del Mar High School.
A student stands and holds a sign in front of Corona del Mar High School on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Several Advanced Placement students expressed fear they’d be forced to absorb complex subjects in mere months and then potentially wait from December to May to be tested on what they learned in the fall.

Costa Mesa High School incoming junior Cameron Glabb signed up for three AP classes next year — Environmental Science, Rhetoric and U.S. History — and on Monday was nervous about how his schedule might look under the 4x4 model.

“I have no idea what semester they’ll be,” said Glabb, who came to Corona del Mar with friend and classmate David Laurence. “I don’t know how the tests are going to work or how they’re going to cram it all into one semester.”

Taking into account wrestling, a sport that comprises two full-year periods each year, and choir, which holds concerts throughout the year, only compounds Glabb’s confusion.

“I just don’t know how those are going to work out,” he said.

A small group of teachers assembled across the street from demonstrators, so as not to protest directly on school grounds, shared similar concerns.

Andy Ball, Corona del Mar High’s choral director, said the 4x4 model seems to erode the support systems that full-year elective classes often provide.

“Our role in performing arts is to keep our kids emotionally and mentally safe,” Ball said of the nearly 200 students in his program. “The choice [the board has] made to rip this in half, essentially, is emotionally and mentally dangerous for our kids.”

Parents and teachers protest in front of Corona del Mar High School.
Parents and teachers protest in front of Corona del Mar High School against the new 4x4 learning schedule adopted by Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Fellow instructor Vanessa Valdes, who teachers AP Visual Art and AP World History, shared her concern for how much students could learn and retain in a few short months.

“Pedagogically, kids need time to reflect to develop critical thinking. That’s part of development for adolescent brains,” said Valdes, whose demonstration sign read: “You can’t teach 2,000 years of history in four months.”

Those concerns, among others, have been compiled in a petition created by Corona del Mar incoming seniors Gabi Gomes, Stephen Weinstock and Troy Tsubota, NMUSD student board representative, and posted online at change.org. In one week, the online document has garnered more than 2,100 signatures.

Gomes said Friday the spirit of the petition and organization against the 4x4 model is not malicious, but rather a sincere attempt to see if board members would be willing to go back to the drawing board.

“Putting the health of people, mental and physically, above an ideal plan and finding common ground where everyone came together — that would be my hope,” she said.

Newport-Mesa officials have not said whether they would be willing to modify the 4x4 model to accommodate concerns brought forth.

Orange County coronavirus cases, deaths by city

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

  • Santa Ana: 6,492 cases; 143 deaths
  • Anaheim: 5,896 cases; 141 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 1,626 cases; 45 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,118 cases; nine deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,102 cases; seven deaths
  • Newport Beach: 775 cases; six deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 346 cases; eight deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 124 cases; fewer than five deaths

Updated figures are posted daily at occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/coronavirus-in-oc.

For information on getting tested, visit occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/covid-19-testing.

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