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Newport-Mesa Unified students return to class as teachers union seeks to halt reopening

Danielle Hodge, left, takes a picture of her daughter, Isla, 6, and her first-grade teacher, Shari Gaeta.
Danielle Hodge, left, takes a picture of her daughter, Isla, 6, and her first-grade teacher, Shari Gaeta, during the first day of in-person learning at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The scene at Newport Beach’s Mariners Elementary School Tuesday had all the makings of a homecoming — bundles of red, white and blue balloons at the school’s front gate greeted onlookers while a banner reading “Welcome” flapped in the breeze.

Students lined up on the blacktop, hands tightly clutching backpack straps, faces bearing masks of many patterns as they waved to waiting parents on the other side of the gate. After just one half-day of school, their first time on campus since March, they were bursting with energy.

“Nash!” 4-year-old Emery Downing called out to her older brother from behind a shiny, scaled mermaid mask.

Nash Downing, 6, who wore a shark mask, waved back through the gate.

Nash Downing, 6, waves to his mother at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach.
Nash Downing, 6, waves to his mother during the first day of in-person learning at Mariners Elementary School.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Culminating months of planning and conversations about safety, readiness and the implementation of coronavirus precautions, Newport-Mesa Unified School District elementary schools on Tuesday welcomed 3,500 students in transitional kindergarten through second grade back to the classroom in half-day sessions.

Many Newport-Mesa parents and teachers have expressed fears about children and staff returning to campuses during a pandemic.

And, while Orange County has recently experienced a lull in new cases and deaths, a recent spike this week has caused state officials to hold off on loosening restrictions further.

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.

Orange County Health Care Agency officials reported Tuesday 109 new cases and 33 deaths, the highest daily death rate reported, amounting to 53,557 cases and 1,249 fatalities.

Still, for Mariners Elementary mom Alicia Downing — Nash and Emery’s mom — the decision to return was an easy one.

“It was really hard, at their age, to focus online for long periods of time,” Downing said of the rigors and isolation of distance learning. “Bringing them back, having other kids and have a teacher that knows what she’s doing really made us decide to bring them in for in-person [classes].”

Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa.
Parents walk their children to Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa on Tuesday morning as the campus reopened for in-person instruction.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

According to initial reports from the district, the transition to in-person learning seemed to go smoothly and without incident across 22 elementary campuses.

But members of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, still negotiating with the district over how hybrid in-person learning will operate, maintain it’s unsafe to reopen schools when so much remains to be worked out.

On Sept. 23, the union issued a cease and desist letter to the district calling for the halt of its “unilateral implementation of new instructional models” and claiming leaders engaged in an unfair labor practice when they predetermined three elementary school teacher preparation days without an agreement.

“The district’s failure to provide NMFT with sufficient notice on these decisions has deprived us of any meaningful opportunity to negotiate for the safety and the well-being of our unit members,” the letter read. “We demand that he district provide the requested information and maintain the status quo on instructional schedules until we have reached an agreement.”

Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa
Students and parents walk to Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa on Tuesday morning.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

NMFT President Tamara Fairbanks said Monday the organization had filed for an injunction through the California Public Employment Relations Board to halt the reopening. A ruling in the teachers’ favor could potentially result in the district’s having to re-close campuses.

“It’s concerning our district would ignore the negotiations process and start anyway,” Fairbanks said. “Our goal is to delay the school reopening until everything is in place.”

NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco said earlier this week she could not comment on matters regarding the union, but indicated negotiations were ongoing. On Tuesday, she described the reopening plan as even more cautious than what state guidelines are allowing.

The district will take a staggered approach to returning some 17,500 students to schools in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach one full week after Orange County got the green light to reopen TK-12 schools on a modified basis.

About 200,000 Orange County students are back to school amid celebrations and safety concerns, a major test of school districts’ ability to reopen campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday saw the return of lower grade classes with smaller student groups split into morning and afternoon cohorts, as well as special education students districtwide. Third- through sixth-grade students are anticipated to return Thursday, with middle and high school students coming back Oct. 12.

About 2,000 students enrolled in a 100% virtual Cloud Campus will stay there through the school year.

Mariners Elementary School on Tuesday, September 29
Olivia Byer, left, 5, hugs her brother, Nolan, 2, as their mom, Meredith, looks on during the first day of in-person learning at Mariners Elementary School.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Sabrina Ericastilla, a second-grade teacher at Harbor View Elementary School, said the first day back was a success. With the precautions in place, students did better than expected.

“We were all a little nervous about little kids not being able to pull it off, but it was fine,” Ericastilla said. “They wore their masks. They kept their distance. And they were so happy. They were so pleased to kind of be back of some form of getting close to normalcy.”

Reopening is also a lifeline for parents like Mariners Elementary mom Katie Holst, who waited to pick up her 5-year-old son, Emerson, from his kindergarten class Tuesday.

“I work full time, so trying to work full time, take care of my other two kids and do Zoom four times a day sometimes was near impossible,” she said. “My work productivity was suffering a little bit and just trying to manage it all was nearly impossible to do it all.”

The Laguna Beach Unified School District will reopen its two elementary schools — El Morro and Top of the World — after the board approved the reopening by a split vote of 4-1 in a special meeting on Friday.

To help families prepare for the new rules of on-campus learning during a pandemic, school principals have been busy holding meetings and answering questions from parents and staff.

“There’s been an incredible amount of preparing and communicating to teachers, students and parents — it’s been busy,” said Duane Cox, principal of Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa. “I’m just thrilled for my students to be back.”

On Tuesday morning, Rea Elementary mom Karla Mora grabbed cellphone pictures of her 4-year-old son, Kayden, outside before securing his face mask and walking him to the transitional kindergarten entry gate.

“I’m very happy but a little nostalgic — he’s never been away from me,” Mora said in Spanish translated by Franco. “It’s a big step for him. He was very happy to come to school, even though he seemed a little anxious to be away from me.”

While she understood parents’ concerns about reopening, Mora said she trusted her school’s readiness.

“I’m at ease, because I think this is the best they can do,” she said. “I’m very hopeful all will work out well.”

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