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Newport-Mesa Unified middle and high school students will return to campuses in November

Students and parents protest outside the Newport-Mesa Unified School District office Friday, Oct. 23.
Protesters demonstrate for the reopening of secondary schools outside the Newport-Mesa Unified School District office in Costa Mesa on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Newport-Mesa Unified School District secondary students will report for in-person instruction starting in November, after officials approved a hybrid learning model that would reduce class sizes by creating a new cohort of pupils who would voluntarily learn from home.

District officials assured many of the issues around scheduling, class sizes and insufficient student-teacher time — problems that halted a previous Oct. 12 reopening — have been worked out in the newest plan, approved by board members Tuesday.

Students enrolled at Back Bay/Monte Vista High School will return on Nov. 3. The remaining middle and high schools will reopen on Nov. 9, with the exception of Early College High School. Students there will continue distance learning for the time being.

“I know there are many people who feel that we should have opened earlier. And people who feel that we shouldn’t open yet,” Supt. Russell Lee-Sung said Tuesday. “I really do not believe that we have rushed. [And] I do not believe we have delayed.

“We’re making this recommendation with the support of our principals,” he continued. “We feel it’s time to get our students back to school in this model.”

The decision comes as many teachers and parents continue to express reservations around readiness and safety. Meanwhile, those who support reopening rallied Friday outside the district’s Costa Mesa headquarters.

Organizers said plans for the protest began Oct. 10, just before secondary schools in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District were initially scheduled to reopen.

Under the revised plan, two groups of students will alternately come to class for two full days each week and learn from home for another two days, with a half-day of universal distance learning added into the mix.

A third cohort will continue to learn at home but stay connected to their home schools. They might participate in classes by video or, following a 15-minute check-in period at the start of each class, work online independently or collaboratively with other students.

The thinking is the third group will reduce the total number of kids on campus, aiding the problem of overcrowding in the original plan. Those who fall ill, have viral symptoms or are under quarantine would also have the option of moving from an in-person cohort to the third, remote-only group.

“There must be comfort and safety and security for a child before they’re even open to learning,” Corona del Mar High School Principal Josh Hill said Tuesday. “Forcing students back into an in-person setting when they aren’t mentally prepared for that is difficult and probably counterproductive.”

Those who oppose secondary schools reopening have questioned how new cases would be reported to school officials and whether families would be notified of possible exposure.

A new online COVID-19 dashboard launched by Newport-Mesa Unified School District
A new online COVID-19 dashboard launched by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and updated daily tracks infections at each school site.
(Screenshot by Sara Cardine)

The district responded by launching a new online COVID-19 dashboard that, coupled with a prescribed reporting and contact tracing program, will help communicate new cases and their locations to the public.

Available on the district’s website, the portal on Wednesday showed five infections have so far been reported throughout Newport-Mesa. Two were documented at Costa Mesa Middle/High School, where some students have been admitted into small groups for socially distanced band or athletics practice.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District closed its primary school campuses through Wednesday in light of the Silverado wildfire, which is at 5% containment as of Tuesday evening.

Two infections were reported at Sonora Elementary School and another at Rea Elementary, where students began reporting to school Sept. 29. Two more cases, at Woodland and Kaiser elementary schools, were logged Tuesday but had been removed Wednesday.

“If we find out a staff [member] or student has a positive COVID case, it goes on this dashboard and stays on there for 14 days,” Assistant Supt. Sara Jocham said Tuesday.

Jocham described how school nurses and staff would interview newly infected individuals and reach out to anyone with whom the person may have had close contact on campus. Those people would self-quarantine for 14 days before returning.

“Unfortunately, we have had to use the process. But we feel it’s a very comprehensive process,” she added.

The reopening of Newport-Mesa Unified secondary schools comes as Orange County health officials report a slight uptick in average new cases seen countywide.

On Wednesday, the Orange County Health Care Agency reported 233 new cases and 13 more COVID-19 deaths, bringing the total number of cases to 59,213 and the fatality rate to 1,467. Area hospitals were treating 177 individuals, including 60 in intensive care units.

With a seven-day average of new cases at 5.1 per 100,000 residents and a testing positivity rate of 3.2%, Orange County remained in the current red tier for reopening for the 51st consecutive day Wednesday. Meanwhile, cases among children continue to climb.

Nearly 30 new infections among Orange County children under 18 were reported Wednesday, including 11 among youth aged 15 and 18. In Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, two cities served by Newport-Mesa Unified, records indicate 236 cases have so far been recorded in children 18 and under.

Students at the six elementary schools in the Huntington Beach City School District will be on campus four days a week during the pandemic.

Here are the latest cumulative coronavirus case counts and COVID-19 deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 11,444 cases; 314 deaths
  • Anaheim: 10,122 cases; 314 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,589 cases; 86 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 2,015 cases; 44 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,881 cases; 13 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,230 cases; 26 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 569 cases; 20 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 248 cases; fewer than five deaths

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

  • 0 to 17: 4,404 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 8,888 cases; five deaths
  • 25 to 34: 12,719 cases; 21 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 9,432 cases; 38 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 9,532 cases; 114 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 7,108 cases; 204 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 3,554 cases; 289 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 1,968 cases; 317 deaths
  • 85 and older: 1,561 cases; 478 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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