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Newport-Mesa Unified middle and high schools will not reopen Monday, administrators ask for more time

Julia Graham, left, and Karla Rivera  protest outside of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices in Costa Mesa
Julia Graham, left, and Karla Rivera hold signs in protest outside of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices in Costa Mesa on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer/ Staff Photographer)

Thousands of middle and high school students poised to return to Newport-Mesa Unified School District campuses Monday under a hybrid learning plan will have to stay put, after district officials admitted Thursday they were not prepared for the move.

Amid much confusion and debate — and as 125 demonstrators in favor of a return rallied outside the district’s Costa Mesa headquarters — board members voted 5-1 to delay reopening schools until no later than Dec. 17. Trustee Vicki Snell cast the lone dissenting vote. Trustee Dana Black was absent.

A special meeting was called for Thursday, one day after officials learned school principals had not yet figured out how to bring back large groups of students in a way that would accommodate the small, distanced cohorts required by state school reopening guidelines.

Supt. Russell Lee-Sung explained it proved too challenging to evenly break students into small groups while still assuring distanced desks and adequate teaching staff.

Students and parents protest outside of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices in Costa Mesa
Students and parents protest a proposed delay of secondary school reopenings outside of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices in Costa Mesa on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer/ Staff Photographer)

Administrators also reported issues with the loss of student-teacher time under the hybrid plan, compared to distance learning, and teachers’ office hours, which students claim provide needed instructional supports.

“While we do not intend or want to change the course of action on a decision that we’ve made, we also need to be willing to adjust when necessary,” Lee-Sung told more than 1,100 viewers of Thursday’s livestreamed meeting. “Some significant challenges did arise that make this decision necessary and in the overall best interest of our staff, students and district.”

Trustees approved a plan this summer that would allow for students who had not opted into a 100% virtual Cloud Campus to be part of an adaptable, multilevel model that would shift from distance learning to in-person learning to a hybrid mix in response to changing county and state coronavirus guidelines.

About 3,500 elementary school students in that model began returning to campus Sept. 29 and are currently learning in a limited-hours hybrid plan of their own.

District officials said the return Tuesday to in-person classes went smoothly. But teachers still negotiating with NMUSD over a reopening plan are seeking an injunction that, if approved, could reclose the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa campuses.

But as the Oct. 12 reopening of secondary schools inched closer, friction mounted between those eager to see kids back in class and those who felt a return was premature and could potentially put students and teachers at risk.

Members of Newport-Mesa’s employee unions rallied in a Sept. 20 vehicle caravan to highlight concerns about instructional losses under the hybrid model and what they claimed were inadequacies in the implementation of school site safety plans.

Students and parents protest outside of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices in Costa Mesa on  October 8.
Students and parents protest outside of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices in Costa Mesa on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

On Thursday, about 125 stakeholders on the other side of the argument protested a possible delay at the district’s headquarters while Costa Mesa police officers stood by.

“We’re here advocating today for the silent majority of students who want to be going back,” said Annie Somers, Newport Harbor High School senior and co-organizer of the demonstration.

“We just thought it was unacceptable that in the 11th hour of this that teachers … and the board [are] now trying to recall the vote for us returning Oct. 12,” she continued.

Newport-Mesa parent Heather Scheck, whose children attend Ensign Intermediate and Newport Harbor, heard about the protest on social media. She said her son was struggling from a loss of social interaction under distance learning, exacerbated by frequent technical glitches.

“The fact that our district isn’t prepared to put the kids back to school on Monday is embarrassing and appalling,” Scheck said. “They’ve had [seven] months to prepare — it’s not something that’s been sprung upon them.”

The Laguna Beach Unified School District reopened its two elementary schools — Top of the World and El Morro — on Monday to transitional kindergarten to second-grade students.

Board President Martha Fluor reported in the meeting 999 public comments had been received on the matter — the 40 randomized responses read aloud Thursday showed community members were evenly split.

“We know that this is a very contentious and divisive issue,” Flour said. “It has been taken [up] with the greatest of care. We are taking this very seriously.”

Principals Jake Haley and Josh Hill, of Costa Mesa and Corona del Mar high schools, respectively, explained they would build consensus in the coming weeks, working with teachers, staff and district officials to ensure a smooth transition whenever students did return.

A delay will also give the district time to negotiate with the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers and the California School Employee Assn. over working conditions in the hybrid plan — agreements which have still not been reached more than a week after the elementary school reopenings.

While several trustees expressed disappointment in the overall lack of readiness, there were differing opinions as to whether a delay was necessary.

Trustee Michelle Barto said while she was unhappy with the outcome, it was imperative to move forward as best as possible.

“I think we can all acknowledge we’ve done a bad job with this. But we have to deal with what we have and where we are,” she said. “The right thing to do is what the principals have asked for, and they’ve asked for more time.”

Trustee Vicki Snell, who is running for reelection in November, openly opposed the delay.

“Everything is safe for students to return,” she said, adding that Orange County guidelines allowed schools to reopen on a modified basis starting Sept. 22. “I appreciate issues with balanced cohorts and classroom measures — but that all should have been decided ahead of time.”

Noah Evans, 13, a seventh-grader from TeWinkle Middle School, holds a sign on Oct. 8.
Noah Evans, 13, TeWinkle Middle School seventh-grader, holds a sign during a protest outside of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District offices on Thursday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Orange County’s new virus cases, hospitalizations steadily increase

Orange County Health Care Agency officials reported 141 new cases and 14 more deaths on Thursday, bringing the total number of cases in the county to 55,183 and fatalities to 1,306. Some 172 individuals are being hospitalized, with 62 in intensive care units.

Orange County is still in the second-most stringent tier of the state’s reopening framework, with its daily positive case rate for every 100,000 residents at 5.2. The testing positivity rate remains at 3.2%, which is within the thresholds to move into the next tier.

Below are the coronavirus case counts and deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 10,596 cases; 287 deaths
  • Anaheim: 9,421 cases; 282 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,477 cases; 76 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,853 cases; 34 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,749 cases; 13 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,161 cases; 25 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 521 cases; 18 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 229 cases; fewer than five deaths

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

  • 0 to 17: 3,978 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 8,308 cases; four deaths
  • 25 to 34: 11,858 cases; 19 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 8,768 cases; 36 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 8,909 cases; 109 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 6,622 cases; 187 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 3,324 cases; 264 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 1,875 cases; 276 deaths
  • 85 and older: 1,492 cases; 410 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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