Newport-Mesa Unified community takes a breather after secondary school reopening delayed

Corona del Mar High School
On Friday, Newport-Mesa Unified School District parents, students and teachers mainly expressed relief officials had decided to slow down, take a breath and go back to the drawing board.
(File Photo)

Longtime Newport Harbor High School teacher John Brazleton scheduled a meeting with Principal Sean Boulton on Wednesday — just five days before the school was to resume in-person learning — to let him know he could not come back to work.

A cancer survivor who’d undergone chemotherapy in 2009 and has compromised respiratory function as a result, his doctor recommended he do everything possible to minimize his exposure to the coronavirus.

Like other Newport-Mesa Unified School District teachers, Brazleton had been offered an opportunity to teach in a 100% virtual Cloud Campus for the 2020-21 school year. But he declined.

“I decided not to go to the Cloud Campus because I love Newport Harbor,” he said. “[And] I had mistakenly put my trust in the superintendent and the school board to reopen when it was safe.”

When Orange County’s coronavirus case rates had apparently stabilized enough for schools to return to modified in-person instruction Sept. 22, district officials came up with a plan to return secondary students to campuses on a modified basis starting Oct. 12.

Brazleton was one of several teachers who circulated letters throughout the school community enumerating the issues — reduced student-teacher time and no office hours, too much risk of virus exposure and too little communication on how scheduling, distancing and cleaning would work.

He received backlash, mainly from parents passionate about the need for kids to return to classes, teachers and friends, but held his ground.

“I informed my principal I’m not coming back, that we need to figure out a plan B,” he said.

With safety concerns and logistical complications stacking up, secondary principals disclosed to board members and district officials Wednesday there might not be enough time to pull off a reopening.

In an hourslong special meeting Thursday, trustees expressed their disappointment in having to revert course so late in the game but ultimately decided to delay the transition to hybrid learning for middle and high schools through fall semester.

NMUSD students poised to return to secondary school campuses Monday will have to stay put, after district officials admitted Thursday they were not prepared for the move.

On Friday, parents, students and teachers — including those who’d hoped for a return and those who were preparing for in-person learning to start Monday — mainly expressed relief officials had decided to slow down, take a breath and go back to the drawing board.

“Of course, I’m bummed that I’m not going back to school. [But] I think they made the right decision — I don’t think we were ready” said Corona del Mar senior Gabi Gomes. “This will give the district and administrators time to really figure out the best way forward.”

Gomes said those who favor returning may think classes will resume as usual. But with fewer supports for students built into the hybrid-model day, enforced distancing and no group activities or gatherings, pandemic learning will be drastically different.

“I think students who don’t understand what hybrid learning was actually going to be like, how it was going to work and how it would negatively affect their education are the ones who are upset,” she said.

Kimberly Claytor teaches seventh-grade science and chemistry at Corona del Mar. She was planning to spend Friday moving furniture and marking out 6-foot distance lines for desk placement before Thursday’s decision.

“I was steeling myself for Monday. I didn’t know what schedule we were really going to be on. I wasn’t sure who was going to be doing the cleaning between classes — there was a lot up in the air,” she said of her world before Thursday. “[Now], I’m actually very, very relieved.”

Claytor, who’s taught in Newport-Mesa for 20 years, said she hopes the delay will allow students to maintain the rhythm and routine of distance learning through the semester and give tempers a chance to calm.

Jamie Karutz agrees. The mother of a fourth-grade daughter in the Cloud Campus and another in her sophomore year at Early College High School who, as a Type 1 diabetic, faces a higher risk from COVID-19, she favored a delay.

Karutz was upset at the way the district wasn’t forthcoming about what options parents would have for the start of the school year but is glad principals and teachers will have more time to work out the details before bringing kids back

She understands, however, many parents don’t share her views on reopening.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘My kids are healthy, we’re relatively healthy, they need to be in school,’” Karutz said of parent friends. “But my kids can’t be. We don’t agree, so we don’t talk anymore. It has been politicized, which is unfortunate.”

Orange County Healthcare Agency officials on Friday reported 162 new cases and 10 deaths for a cumulative 55,345 cases and 1,316 deaths. So far, 4,000 Orange County children have contracted the virus, including 113 in Costa Mesa and 103 in Newport Beach.

Ryan Schachter, a special-education specialist at Corona del Mar Middle School and Corona del Mar High School, and the boys’ basketball coach, said he felt conflicted about the delayed reopening of secondary schools.

“I feel strongly that students would benefit greatly from being back in the classroom. However, I also feel the hybrid model, as presented, is not the solution,” he said. “I hope, in the meantime, the district, along with site leadership teams, will come up with a stronger, better model.”

Newport-Mesa parent Kristen Howerton has a son at Costa Mesa High School, a son and daughter at Costa Mesa Middle School and a daughter at Davis Elementary. She said the secondary hybrid model exposed kids to the risk of transmission for not much reward.

She favors the creation of a third cohort of students, who could remain at home but follow along a smaller in-person class via computer.

“Concerned families can keep kids home and families who need their kids at school could send them,” she said. “It’s baffling to me they cannot see that as a win-win.”

Brazleton also suggested a cohort of stay-at-home kids partaking in lessons remotely would reduce classroom loads so in-person students could space out. It’s one of many ideas being discussed by his colleagues.

“We’ve got some incredibly creative thinkers across the district,” he said. “The board and district administrators would be sorely remiss if they did not tap into that resource.”

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