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Laguna Beach school district to reopen elementary schools Monday

The playground area at Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach in 2017.
The playground area at Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach in 2017. The school will reopen Monday for in-person instruction for the first time since March.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Laguna Beach Unified School District plans to reopen its two elementary schools — El Morro and Top of the World — for in-person learning on Monday, following board approval.

In a special meeting on Friday, the board approved a return to the classroom for transitional kindergarten to fifth-grade students by a 4-1 vote. Board Clerk Carol Normandin was the lone dissenter, citing concerns over a need for coronavirus testing before students and staff return to campus.

The pandemic forced the elementary schools to close in March.

“Staff have been offered two opportunities for testing so far in early September,” District Deputy Supt. Leisa Winston said in an email. “Laguna Beach Unified School District will hold another two dates for staff testing on Oct. 7 and 8. The district cannot make testing mandatory but does encourage staff to participate.

“At the time of the meeting, it was unclear as to whether or not the district’s testing contractor would have availability to test students in the week before school resumes for in-person learning. We have since confirmed their availability, and students who are returning to school at both the elementary level and those in the self-contained programs that are scheduled to return to school beginning Oct. 5, will be provided with an option for testing this Thursday, Oct. 1.”

Orange County officials initially hoped that the county would be able to move into the next tier on Tuesday, but the average daily rate for new COVID-19 cases changed.

With the district’s planned staggered starts, transitional kindergarten through second-grade students would begin hybrid learning on Monday or Tuesday, and third- to fifth-grade students would come back to campus on Wednesday or Thursday. Elementary students would remain with their cohorts, and all elementary students would participate in distance learning on Fridays.

Winston added that desk shields have been ordered for every elementary school student.

Upcoming city-sponsored events have been condensed into two seasonal festivals called the “Fall Festival at the Promenade” and the “Holidays at the Promenade.”

As Orange County transitioned into the second, red tier labeled “substantial transmission” and was able to maintain that status for two weeks, county schools have been allowed to reopen physically.

Previously, the district had applied for an elementary school waiver for El Morro and Top of the World. Its application was approved by the state on Sept. 16. Data available on the Orange County Health Care Agency website indicates that the district waiver would affect 915 students in 39 classes in the event county schools had to close again.

The Laguna Beach school district entered the academic year with a playbook that called for a three-phased reopening plan. Regarding middle schools and high schools, the board does not look to be prepared to deviate from its plan to keep secondary schools in virtual academy through the first trimester.

Winston said that the board will discuss the reopening of secondary schools in its scheduled meeting on Oct. 22, but based on current decision-making, those students would project to return to the classroom on Nov. 23.

The board had sought the opinion of secondary school students through a survey. Nearly 60% of the 279 Thurston Middle School students that answered said they wanted to reopen shortly after the county could do so. Conversely, 54% of the 489 students to respond from Laguna Beach High School said they would want to continue distance learning until the end of the first trimester.

Orange County had been on pace to advance into the third, orange tier of “moderate transmission” on Tuesday. The county will remain in the more-restrictive red tier this week after a rise in the new cases it is seeing per day.

For a county to make the orange tier, it must maintain an average of between one to 3.9 new daily cases per 100,000 residents and a testing positivity rate of between 2% and 4.9%.

The county maintained its 3.1% testing positivity rate from the weekend, but the daily new cases per 100,000 residents rose to 4.4, a number that stood at 3.6 as of Monday. Those are seven-day averages with a seven-day lag.

If a county’s reopening metrics sit in two different tiers, it will be assigned to the more restrictive tier.

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