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As virus case counts rise in O.C., Newport-Mesa Unified announces all schools will start the new year online

Estancia High School in Costa Mesa
Newport-Mesa Unified School District classes will remain online for the fall semester. Estancia High School in Costa Mesa is pictured.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

For Newport-Mesa Unified School District families waiting to learn whether their children might be able step foot on physical school campuses when classes begin Aug. 24, the waiting is over — all schools in the district will remain online for the foreseeable future.

Officials said Wednesday high countywide coronavirus infection rates have thwarted plans to reopen schools, even though NMUSD board members have approved TK-6 and secondary models for doing so if and when it becomes feasible.

“With the elevated COVID-19 cases in Orange County, reopening our schools for in-person instruction is not possible at this time,” Interim Supt. Russell Lee-Sung said in a statement. “In order to provide parents, teachers and staff adequate time to prepare for the start of the school year, we are announcing that all NMUSD schools will begin the school year with 100% distance learning.”

With the fate of the new school year momentarily decided, Newport-Mesa is shifting its attention toward ensuring online learning goes off without a hitch.

Should state and county guidelines indicate it’s safe for students to return to some level of in-person instruction, NMUSD students who have opted to be on a flexible, multilevel learning track could possibly return to campuses sometime this year.

The Orange County Board of Education will seek to overturn a July 17 order by Gov. Gavin Newsom mandating schools in counties at high risk for coronavirus return to distance learning in the upcoming school year.

Officials are also working to finalize plans for a K-12 100% virtual school option available for families who want to keep their children at home and are willing to commit for the entire academic year.

Forms indicating intent to participate are being sent to parents and guardians, who are asked whether their children would prefer to enroll in the virtual school or the multilevel track.

The virtual school will function separately from all other NMUSD schools, with former Ensign Intermediate School Principal Mike Sciacca serving as principal. Sciacca said Thursday the school is a good option for those who thrived under distance learning in spring.

Newport-Mesa will need to determine student and parent interest before it can begin staffing the school with district teachers interested in teaching online.

“It’s definitely a chicken and egg situation,” Sciacca said. “You can’t hire teachers until you know how many kids you’re going to have, but you don’t know how many kids you can have until you know how many staff members you have to handle it.”

Sciacca is working with Education Technology Director Jenith Mishne and a team of tech-savvy teachers to improve upon last year’s distance learning curriculum for TK-6 students while building a new secondary learning plan that may include electives and AP offerings.

Mishne, who said she’s wanted to develop an online curriculum for a while, acknowledged there’s still a lot of work to do and time is of the essence.

“We are making shifts that I’ve dreamed of for years, and it’s exciting, but it’s definitely challenging,” she said. “[But] we’re running out of time so, like it or not, our decisions are going to be made fast, and then we’ll have to move.”

For some district teachers, Wednesday’s news brought some measure of relief. Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers President Tamara Fairbanks said not knowing if they’d be asked to teach in person or continue online created a lot of uneasiness among educators.

“Teachers have been anxious all summer over whether there would be distance learning or not. At least this allows us to concentrate on health and safety concerns,” Fairbanks said of the district’s decision. “I think it’s a good call, especially with the infection rates being what they are now.”

Parents and teachers rally against a 4x4 learning schedule adopted by NMUSD.
Parents and teachers rally against a 4x4 learning schedule adopted by Newport-Mesa Unified School District, a policy the district later reversed.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Orange County healthcare officials on Thursday reported 35,778 coronavirus infections and 604 deaths, with an 11.7% positivity rate.

Newport Harbor High School English teacher Betsy Fisher said normally, by this time of year, teachers would have had the academic year planned out through June. But not this year.

“The anxiety among my colleagues has been really unprecedented,” said Fisher, who’s taught at NMUSD schools for 22 years. “At least now we know what we’re dealing with and we can adjust our lessons and plans.”

While some greeted the district’s news with relief, others, like parent Heather Sheward, were crestfallen.

Sheward’s 9-year-old twins, Tucker and Wyatt, attend Kaiser Elementary School. Distance learning has been difficult, especially for Wyatt, who has autism and has been forced to learn through a computer screen instead of with the aides and teachers who support his learning needs.

“Distance learning has been an epic failure,” she said, describing Wyatt’s anxiety over screen time and the hours it took to ensure both sons were on task. “We had to quit months before school finished. It wasn’t productive.”

Sheward said her experience is not uncommon among parents, some of whom are opting for private school or home schooling out of frustration. She wishes Newport-Mesa would offer parents more choice as to what was best for their children.

“If I, as a parent, felt the mental health of my child was more important than the number of children who’ve been diagnosed with [coronavirus], I would send my child to school,” she said. “They didn’t give me that option.”

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