Newport-Mesa Unified rolls out plan for students to start returning to schools on Sept. 29

Adams Elementary School in Costa Mesa
Newport–Mesa Unified School District elementary school students in grades TK-2 can return to in-person learning Sept. 29, with grades 3-6 following on Oct. 1 and secondary students Oct. 12, according to a hybrid reopening plan.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

As easing state restrictions allow more Orange County businesses and schools to reopen, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District has announced a plan to bring students back to campuses for in-person learning on a staggered basis, beginning Sept. 29.

New guidelines issued last month by the California Department of Public Health place Orange County in a reopening tier that could allow schools to resume on-site instruction by Sept. 22.

School board members unanimously determined in a special meeting Tuesday that students in the district’s multi-level flexible learning plan will transition from online instruction to a hybrid model that will bring them into schools for part of the week and have them learning from home for the remainder.

TK-2 and special education students in special day classes will return on Sept. 29, followed by grades 3-6 on Oct. 1 and middle and high school students on Oct. 12. Nearly 1,700 students who enrolled in a 100% virtual Cloud Campus will continue to learn online throughout the school year.

While most Orange County schools are on track to return to campus on Sept. 22, more than 100 schools applied for waivers to open earlier — and most received approval to proceed.

Supt. Russell Lee-Sung said the district has been preparing for an eventual return to physical campuses for students enrolled in the flexible plan.

“I said back when we developed this that, at some point in the year, we would be switching levels,” he said. “And here we are.”

Elementary students will be divided into morning and afternoon cohorts that will attend classes for a half day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and learn from home the rest of the time.

On Wednesdays, the cohorts will alternate weekly between a half-day of in-person learning and remote learning in the morning. Teachers will use Wednesday afternoons for professional development, preparation and staff meetings.

Most Newport-Mesa high schoolers will be divided into two groups that report to school, either on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays for a full day of classes, with remote half-days on Wednesday mornings.

Safety precautions will be employed, including mandated facial coverings for grades 3 and higher (with a strong recommendation for grades TK-2), social distancing, enhanced disinfection and air filtration, plexiglass dividers on all teacher and elementary school student desks and daily visual wellness checks.

Assistant Supt. Sara Jocham — who explained how schools would respond to new infections on campuses — said students refusing to wear masks could be sent home.

“It’s very similar to a dress code violation,” Jocham said. “But we are looking at students who are in defiance of this requirement, of their not being able to attend school.”

Newport-Mesa’s push to reopen comes as the new infections countywide steadily decline and parents demand an end to distance learning, which many say has negatively impacted kids.

Other parents, along with members of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, say it’s still too soon for kids and teachers to return to classrooms and risk exposing themselves and others to the virus.

“We are not in agreement with the proposed start date and the level-two recommendations,” NMFT President Tamara Fairbanks said in a statement that referenced outstanding safety, sanitation and instructional concerns.

“We want nothing more than to see our students in person, but the lack of information on safety and instruction demonstrates to us that NMUSD is not ready for reopening.”

Trustee Karen Yelsey said while society has been paralyzed with fear over COVID-19, there are other health and safety risks to consider, including children’s social-emotional and mental health.

“I personally, unfortunately, feel there is a greater chance of a child dying from suicide this year than of COVID-19,” she said. “It’s time that we stop being at this panic level and start coming back to school.”

District will seek TK-6 reopening waiver, even if moot

Also Tuesday, board members voted 4-3 to pursue a waiver from the state to allow for the resumption of in-person classes for grades TK-6. The option became available in early August, and many private and charter schools have already reopened with waivers.

The Costa Mesa Catholic school was granted a waiver from the state last week to resume in-person learning. On Tuesday, more than 150 students returned to the campus for a new school year, albeit with a pandemic twist.

Parents Tuesday urged NMUSD to secure a waiver, arguing it could help maintain local control should state guidelines and coronavirus trends shift away from supporting in-person learning.

Supt. Lee-Sung explained once schools reopen, the only factor that will determine their reclosure would be infection rates exceeding certain school-site or district-level thresholds, not state guidelines.

“Once Orange County becomes eligible [for reopening], the waivers are no longer necessary,” he said.

A slim majority of board members, however, said it couldn’t hurt to apply as a fail-safe against having to shutter schools again.

“There’s really not a big downside to applying for it and not having to use it,” trustee Ashley Anderson said. “I’d like to have it in my back pocket.”

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