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Declining Orange County virus rates may aid school reopening, but Newport-Mesa will exercise caution

A "no trespassing" sign outside Newport Harbor High School
If Orange County can remain off the state’s virus watch list for 14 days, schools could open as soon as Sept. 6. But Newport-Mesa Unified officials say there’s much work to be done before campuses reopen.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Orange County on Tuesday marked its third day of being off a statewide coronavirus monitoring list, showing a decline in infections and hospitalizations as health officials reported 335 new cases and 15 deaths — a fraction of records hit in recent months.

Hospitalizations dropped to 385 patients, with 113 in intensive care, the lowest rates recorded in the past two months and nearly half of peak levels seen in mid-July.

That trend could spell good news for schools that will technically be allowed to resume in-person instruction once the county has remained off the list for 14 consecutive days, according to state reopening guidelines.

But at Newport-Mesa Unified — where 1,650 students logged on Monday for a 100% virtual Cloud Academy and another 17,350 began the new school year under a distance-learning model — officials say there’s still much work to be done before physical campuses reopen.

In a release sent out Tuesday to the school community, Supt. Russel Lee-Sung clarified no date has been set for the resumption of in-person learning. He assured the district would provide advance notice of any changes in the instructional model.

“This is expected to be a year of continuous adjustment to changing conditions,” Lee-Sung said in a separate statement Tuesday. “Adjusting what and how we teach in a remote setting or switching to modified in-person instruction will also be a significant challenge.”

Monday marked Kobe Bryant Day in Orange County, as the date 8/24 has the two jersey numbers the basketball legend wore during his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

District officials are working out the calculus of how students enrolled in a flexible, three-level learning plan might return to class under a hybrid model complete with facial coverings, social distancing and smaller class cohorts operating on a limited-hour schedule.

They must also solve the logistics of arranging bus transportation and meal distribution, while reaching agreements with Newport-Mesa’s employee unions about a possible return to physical campuses.

“It’s like a giant Rubik’s Cube,” said Newport-Mesa Board President Martha Fluor of the work that remains. “I know parents want our kids to go back. But we’re going to need some additional time. All of these things have to fall into place.”

Officials and administrators were cautiously optimistic about the year ahead, with most schools reporting relatively smooth sailing two days into the 2020-21 academic year, NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco confirmed Tuesday.

“No concerns have been brought up as far as we know,” she said. “Now that we’ve started with distance learning we’re making plans to finalize the reopening plans we made in July.”

At Estancia High School, more than 1,000 students began distance learning under a new 4x4 learning model proposed for all Newport-Mesa schools in July but later withdrawn, after some stakeholders protested it departed too significantly from the traditional model. Estancia alone supported the plan.

Students there will report to odd-numbered periods fall semester, then switch to even-numbered periods in the spring. Principal Mike Halt said the modified schedule will help reduce the risk of exposure if and when in-person classes do resume.

“Our first day went really well. We had great attendance,” Halt said Tuesday. “Our plan here is very simple — we’re going to master distance learning and be ready to transition when the conditions are safe to do so.”

The recent decline in the number of coronavirus cases has drawn down Orange County’s average infection rate to 83.3 cases per 100,000 residents, below the state benchmark of 100 cases, although rates are exceedingly higher in the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim.

The county’s testing positivity rate also dipped slightly to 5.3%, a figure below the state threshold of 8%. The total number of cases stands at 46,642, while 912 Orange County deaths have been reported.

Fluor acknowledged the county’s removal last weekend from the watch list was one piece of good news in a year otherwise marked by challenges.

But, she cautioned, with Orange County’s hypothetical 14th day off the list (Sept. 6) coinciding with Labor Day weekend, families will have to practice vigilance so positive trends do not reverse course.

“We have to make sure there’s not an uptick. Because if there is, the clock starts all over again,” Fluor said.

Coronavirus case counts and COVID-19 deaths by city:

  • Santa Ana: 9,071 cases; 226 deaths
  • Anaheim: 8,006 cases; 211 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,093 cases; 59 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,568 cases; 17 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,411 cases; 12 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,000 cases; 18 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 447 cases; nine deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 170 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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