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Newport-Mesa Unified employees protest school reopening plan, ask for more time to prepare

Parents and students hold a rally at the Huntington Beach City School District on Sept. 22
Parents and students hold a rally at the Huntington Beach City School District on Tuesday to protest the district’s reopening plans.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

With the reopening of Newport-Mesa Unified School District schools set to begin next week, district officials, employees and parents on both sides of the argument of whether in-person instruction can safely resume are digging deeper into their ideological trenches.

Hundreds of NMUSD employees and parents rallied Sunday in a motorcade to protest the planned resumption of in-person learning for transitional kindergarten through second-grade classes on Sept. 29. Employees were represented by the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers and the California School Employee Assn.

For the record:

9:54 AM, Sep. 22, 2020An earlier version of this story misstated that Wilson Elementary was a middle school.

Meanwhile, district officials confirmed Monday while talks with union representatives are still ongoing, NMUSD would move ahead with plans to reopen campuses through Oct. 12, when middle and high school students are scheduled to return.

About 200 vehicles drove in a caravan Sunday from the teachers union’s office on Bristol Street to Costa Mesa High School, convening in a demonstration with speakers who described an inadequacy of safeguards and a hasty effort to roll out a hybridized learning model comprising both online and in-person instruction.

A demonstration at Costa Mesa High School.
Members of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers joined California School Employee Assn. members Sunday in a demonstration at Costa Mesa High School.
(Courtesy of Kimberly Claytor)

NMFT President Tamara Fairbanks said teachers were joined by CSEA members and parents, many of whom want the district to hold off on reopening until all can agree it’s safe to do so.

“A lot of people have concerns about the rash way the district is trying to assemble the first day back at school,” she said. “You have a plan that’s been publicized, but the directives have not been given to the employees.”

While Newport-Mesa is a week away from reopening its campuses, Tuesday marked the first day all Orange County schools were allowed to reopen for in-person instruction.

The Fountain Valley School District on Tuesday welcomed its elementary school students back to classrooms. The district’s campuses reopened under a hybrid model with morning and afternoon cohorts learning on a split schedule.

In a Sept. 11 communication to parents, district officials explained middle schools would reopen in a rotating day hybrid schedule, with one group of students returning to campuses on Thursday and a second group beginning Friday.

Some parents in Orange County believe it’s too early to reopen schools. Huntington Beach City School District parents planned a rally at the district headquarters on Tuesday afternoon, prior to a special board meeting held over Zoom that night.

Julie Zarvos and her son, Ace Zarvos, 6, attend a rally at the Huntington Beach City School District.
Julie Zarvos and her son Ace Zarvos, 6, attend a rally at the Huntington Beach City School District headquarters on Tuesday to protest the district’s reopening plans.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

April Helliwell of Hawes Elementary School PTA, one of the event organizers, said in a Facebook post that the rally was created because parents want better communication and transparency from the district on its plans to reopen the elementary schools in a safe manner.

Huntington Beach City School District plans to transition to hybrid instruction no earlier than Oct. 26.

The Huntington Beach Union High School District plans to return to campus on Nov. 3 in a hybrid model.

Newport-Mesa Unified spokeswoman Annette Franco said district officials did not formally attend the demonstration on Sunday but were aware employees planned to rally.

She maintained the district is adhering to state and county guidelines and is even waiting a full week after Orange County schools were given the green light from the state to reopen on Sept. 22 to begin welcoming students back on a staggered basis.

“We’re being very responsible in when we’re reopening schools and how we’re reopening schools. [And] we are really taking it seriously,” Franco said Monday. “Our big thing is just making sure people know we’re following the guidance.”

Newport-Mesa Unified employees in a demonstration Sunday
Some Newport-Mesa Unified School District employees claim the district’s plan to reopen schools starting Sept. 29 is hasty and unsafe for staff and students.
(Courtesy of Kimberly Claytor)

In Orange County, the number of new infections and testing positivity rates eased somewhat Tuesday, with the seven-day countywide average of new cases falling from 4.7 to 3.6 per 100,000 with an average of about 3.1% testing positive for the virus.

County health officials on Tuesday reported 181 new cases of the virus and 22 more deaths, bringing the cumulative number of cases to 52,382 and the number of deaths to 1,150. Some 170 people were being seen in area hospitals Tuesday for COVID-19, 55 of whom were being treated in intensive care units.

Dr. Clayton Chau, the Orange County Health Care Agency director, said in a media briefing Monday that two weeks after being placed by the state in a red tier category, indicating “substantial transmissions,” a decline in new virus cases could help transition Orange County to a lower orange “moderate” tier that would allow for more indoor business and activities.

“If everything goes well, one week from tomorrow we might be entering the orange tier,” Chau said.

He also reported indications from Orange County schools that reopened TK-6 classes earlier this month with a state-approved waiver, including the Los Alamitos Unified School District and more than 130 private and charter schools, that no new coronavirus infections among teachers, staff or students had been reported.

Alex Dejulio, 5, center holds a sign at the Huntington Beach City School District.
Alex Dejulio, 5, center, holds a sign during a rally at the Huntington Beach City School District headquarters on Tuesday to protest the district’s reopening plans.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“We made it very clear that the schools that we approved [for TK-6 waivers], that they have to let us know if they have any positive cases,” Chau said. “So far, we have not gotten any case reports yet.”

Although Orange County’s numbers look relatively promising compared to record high cases and hospitalizations seen in June and July, NMUSD employees say they are still concerned if campuses are reopened too soon, outbreaks could occur.

“We understand that schools need to reopen, but safety needs to be paramount,” said NMUSD maintenance technician and union steward Gary Logan, who attended Sunday’s protest. “What would be more damaging to students would be to bring them back and then have to send them home again because we’re not ready.”

Logan said many of the supplies and equipment promised by the district haven’t arrived, while additional custodial staff reportedly hired to enhance disinfection regimens aren’t yet in place.

“They ran job interviews back in July and August, but those people are not here,” he said. “The air filters we have in the air-conditioners meet minimum standards, and they’re in the process of upgrading them, but it hasn’t been finished. The supplies are coming in slowly, but they probably won’t be in by the 29th.”

Organizers announced the 2020-21 Pacific Symphony concert season would be postponed to 2021-22, as concert halls remain closed during the pandemic. But staff and musicians are finding new ways to keep the music alive.

Melanie Bassett, a sixth-grade teacher at the district’s Wilson Elementary School, said she’s concerned Title 1 schools that serve socioeconomically disadvantaged students could have a higher risk of exposure but fewer resources than schools in well-heeled neighborhoods.

A single mother who cannot afford to get sick, Bassett says she’s also worried about the timing of the district’s reopening plan, especially when negotiations with employee unions are still going on.

“I would really like to see them push back the start date so we could work out the simple things,” she said. “If we just give it more time and were better prepared that would be better.”

Orange County COVID-19 stats

Here are the latest cumulative coronavirus case counts and COVID-19 deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 10,082 cases; 267 deaths
  • Anaheim: 8,922 cases; 249 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,360 cases; 70 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,787 cases; 29 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,627 cases; 12 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,110 cases; 22 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 501 cases; 16 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 211 cases; fewer than five deaths

Here are the case counts by age group, followed by deaths:

  • 0 to 17: 3,651 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 7,874 cases; four deaths
  • 25 to 34: 11,305 cases; 17 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 8,378 cases; 32 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 8,457 cases; 99 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 6,300 cases; 163 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 3,139 cases; 235 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 1,795 cases; 246 deaths
  • 85 and older: 1,436 cases; 353 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.

Staff writer Matt Szabo contributed to this report.

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