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Huntington Beach City School District parents upset as classrooms remain closed

Elliana Emerson, 12, holds a sign during a rally at the Huntington Beach City School District on Tuesday.
Elliana Emerson, 12, holds a sign during a rally at the Huntington Beach City School District on Tuesday to protest the district’s delayed reopening plans. The district plans to reopen its schools on Oct. 26.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

How soon is too soon when it comes to children returning to in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic?

That depends on who you ask.

About 75 parents and students attended a rally to reopen schools in front of the Huntington Beach City School District office on Tuesday, prior to a special board meeting.

Many parents in attendance said they were frustrated that the Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Sept. 8 that students would return to school for hybrid instruction no earlier than Oct. 26.

That timeline is much later than neighboring districts. Fountain Valley School District students returned to campus Tuesday, while elementary-age students in the Ocean View and Newport-Mesa Unified school districts are set to return on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, also in a hybrid format.

Orange County gave every school the green light on Tuesday to reopen classrooms.

Orange County allowed all of its schools to reopen Tuesday for the first time since March. Teachers say schools still aren’t ready to welcome students and staff back on campus safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

April Helliwell, one of the rally organizers, is the PTSA president at Hawes Elementary School. Her two sons attend Hawes.

“The community is completely in the dark, and it’s reached a point where we are now uninformed and frustrated,” Helliwell said. “We’re still sitting here with no information and we’re looking at Oct. 26. Everyone has questions about why is it still Oct. 26, and if it is Oct. 26, what is the reason? I think a lot of people are saying they think the reason is because the district didn’t do anything for six months … There has just been a lot of mistrust and a loss of faith in the district. People have just had enough.”

Helliwell said district parents have been unhappy for a while now, mentioning the closing of Perry Elementary School last spring. In June, Supt. Gregg Haulk resigned; Greg Magnuson is the interim superintendent.

“They’re just not being transparent,” Helliwell said. “This is a community that has a ton of volunteer help. What do you need us to help with? Do you need us moving desks around, do you need parent volunteers to unbox all of the PPE and set it up for you? They would have a ton of help if they would just reach out to us, and that’s not happening at any level.”

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

During the board meeting, Magnuson provided a short update on the transition from Phase 1 (distance learning) to Phase 2 (hybrid learning). He said the district currently has a substantial inventory of PPE supplies on-site, including 34,000 disposable adult face masks, 10,900 disposable children’s face masks, 4,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, 2,400 face shields, 11,000 cloth student face masks and 4,400 cloth adult face masks. He said school offices have been outfitted with plexiglass barriers.

Magnuson said an additional $1 million has been earmarked for PPE and custodial services.

NMUSD employees rallied in a motorcade Sunday to protest the district’s reopening schools next week, saying supplies and personnel are not in place and union talks are still ongoing.

Magnuson said more details concerning safety in Phase 2 would be provided by Oct. 6. Having that time will allow the district to work out glitches in the distance learning program and consider different hybrid programs including an “AM/PM” model, where kids come on campus in the morning or afternoon, he said.

“You [the Board of Trustees] asked us to learn from other districts, and that’s what we’re doing in this period,” he said. “We’re in consultation with no less than a half-dozen school districts on what they’re doing.”

Magnuson wrote in an email Wednesday that the decision to bring back Huntington Beach City School District students no earlier than Oct. 26 “reflects an abundance of caution for the health and safety of students and staff.”

“The board was mindful of the local post-Memorial Day increases in COVID cases, and in their discussion expressed concern about a potential post-Labor Day COVID increase that would be disruptive to school reopening,” Magnuson wrote in the email. “Additionally, the board expressed a keen interest to support high quality student instruction, including time to successfully implement our Phase 1 distance learning model before transitioning to the Phase 2 hybrid model.”

The Orange County Health Care Agency on Wednesday reported 26 new deaths due to COVID-19, bringing the county’s death toll to 1,176. Of the deaths reported Wednesday, six were skilled nursing facility residents, two were assisted living facility residents and 18 were residents not living in a facility.

Overall, there were 156 new positive tests reported Wednesday, leaving Orange County at 52,538 cumulative cases. Of those cases, an estimated 47,367 people have recovered.

Jennifer Shea, who has three sons who are students at either Hawes Elementary or Sowers Middle School, attended Tuesday’s rally. While some chanted, “No more Zoom, open the room!,” Shea held up a sign that read, “It’s OK to cheat on this one. Copy Fountain Valley’s plan.”

“My kids are definitely suffering,” Shea said. “The teachers are wonderful, but my kids are getting physically sick, getting headaches being on Zoom for so long. If they’re allowed to go back safely, why haven’t we? It’s just the frustration of not having any clarity.”

Radford Brown, 5, places a sign in front of the doors at the Huntington Beach City School District.
Radford Brown, 5, places a sign in front of the doors at the Huntington Beach City School District. The posters were left for board members who met Tuesday night.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

HBCSD board members uniformly said during their board meeting closing remarks that they understood parents’ frustration.

“I also feel that same frustration at the speed at which things are taking place,” board member Diana Marks said. “But what I do know is that the staff has been working 24-7 to get where we are today. It has taken a lot of work, and I know people like to compare us to other districts, but we do have a smaller staff than other districts do.”

Board Vice President Bridget Kaub said that communication was important, even to the point of over-communicating, when more information was available.

“If we can have a very comprehensive answer to so many of these questions that continue to be posed on [Oct. 6], I think that will alleviate a lot of these questions and stress,” she said.

Protesters left their signs at the doorstep of the district building, to be found by board members as they left the building. Helliwell said her desire was that the signs would not be needed again.

“I hope that we don’t have to be out here again, and that our kids will be safe in class sooner rather than later,” she said. “If [Fountain Valley] can go back, and they’re right next door, why are we not prepared?”

Some parents may not be willing to wait. Gina Clayton-Tarvin, president of the Ocean View School District Board of Trustees, said in a text message that several parents have contacted her to help transfer their kids out of HBCSD and into OVSD.

“We have obliged, as we believe in school choice,” she said.

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: 10,114 cases; 271 deaths
  • Anaheim: 8,958 cases; 254 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,371 cases; 71 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,785 cases; 29 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,635 cases; 12 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,110 cases; 22 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 501 cases; 16 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 212 cases; fewer than five deaths

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

  • 0 to 17: 3,670 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 7,902 cases; four deaths
  • 25 to 34: 11,347 cases; 17 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 8,401 cases; 32 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 8,481 cases; 103 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 6,312 cases; 169 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 3,148 cases; 240 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 1,795 cases; 251 deaths
  • 85 and older: 1,437 cases; 359 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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