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For the first time since March, secondary students return to Newport-Mesa Unified campuses

Hanna Jackson and Connor Beneville greets fellow students.
Hanna Jackson, left, senior class president, and Connor Beneville, tech commissioner, greet fellow students returning to Costa Mesa High School on Monday, the first day back to school for secondary students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Cars flowed into the Costa Mesa High School one after another — one car door would open, one student would get out. Teachers and employees were checked for their temperatures, each clad in masks as students hustled across campus to beat the first-period bell.

Monday was the first day “back” to school for thousands of secondary students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

At the campus entrance early Monday morning, senior Hanna Jackson was beaming behind her mask as she greeted classmates stepping onto campus for the first time since schools shuttered in March.

Hanna, the senior class president, said she felt it was safe for her to return to campus because no one in her family was at high risk of contracting the virus.

But that wasn’t the case for some of her friends, who decided to be part of the at-home schooling cohort.

“A lot of people are doing it because they’re going to see their relatives for the holidays and don’t want the risk,” the 17-year-old added. “So, they’re waiting until after the holidays to come back.”

The day after the district reopened its secondary campuses, the Orange County Health Care Agency on Tuesday recorded 267 new cases of coronavirus and three deaths, bringing Orange County’s cumulative case count to 62,830 and fatalities to 1,512. Area hospitals reported they were treating 224 individuals for COVID-19, including 79 in intensive care units.

Principal Dr. Jacob Haley greets a student and steers her to her first class.
Principal Jake Haley greets a student and steers her to her first class as a new student to Costa Mesa High School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Although Hanna has visited campus periodically for water polo practices since September, she said she and others were leery about the district’s previous plans to reopen secondary campuses Oct. 12, which was later postponed after district officials said they weren’t prepared for the move.

The extra month seems to have given officials more time to work out logistics and communicate more clearly with families, Hanna said.

“Before, no one seemed to know what was going on. Now there seems to be a plan in place,” Hanna said. “It’s going to feel weird and different [today], but I think it’s going to be safe if everybody does what they’re supposed to.”

Senior Natalie Arzmanians said the “weirdest” part of her morning was leaving her house.

Pam Dickey, a special education instructional assistant, said on her way into the building she was feeling a little apprehensive but couldn’t wait to work directly with students again.

Newport-Mesa Unified is still hashing out an agreement with its classified employees union — whose representatives previously claimed workers lacked adequate supplies and training — regarding Monday’s reopening. It executed a memorandum of understanding with its teachers union last week.

Students return to Costa Mesa High school on the first day back to school.
Jake Haley Costa Mesa High School’s principal, says the extra month helped him and other site administrators figure out how to accommodate two different cohorts of learners.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
Students return to Costa Mesa High school on the first day back to school.
Students return to Costa Mesa High School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Our administrators have been really good about being above board and getting us what we need,” Dickey said of the school’s safety precautions and protective equipment supply. “I’m super excited to see the kids in person. I think we’re ready.”

For Costa Mesa High School Principal Jake Haley, the extra month helped him and other site administrators figure out how to accommodate two different cohorts of learners and make already suitable site plans even more solid.

“Our plan is a great one. We’re doing everything we can do to keep people safe but, obviously, we can’t control what happens outside our bubble,” Haley said. “I keep telling families we’re all in this together — every decision we make impacts everyone.”

Identifying a third, stay-at-home group was crucial to meeting the needs of all families but also addressing issues of overcrowding while providing a learning option should kids fall ill or need to self-isolate.

In the three ZIP Codes that fall within Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s boundaries, there are reportedly 176 children under 18 who have tested positive for the coronavirus, agency figures indicate, although not all attend NMUSD schools.

Among those, 111 are between the ages of 15 and 18.

“It’s looking out for those students who were asking to stay at home if maybe they had a cough or symptoms,” he said. “Also, we have some families who weren’t prepared to come back yet, so we wanted to make sure we supported them too.”

As of Tuesday evening, the district’s COVID-19 online dashboard reported 25 confirmed cases of the virus at school sites, a number that includes students and staff. Six were on the Costa Mesa Middle and High School campus, while four were reported at Newport Harbor High School, two at Corona del Mar Middle and High schools and one at Ensign Intermediate School.

Another three cases of the virus were reported at non-school facilities owned by the district, according to the dashboard.

Students leave Corona Del Mar High School following the first day back of in-person learning on Monday, November 9.
Students leave the Corona del Mar middle and high school campus following the first day back of in-person learning on Monday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

At Corona del Mar High School, new principal Josh Hill said Monday was different than what he expected his first day to be.

“I had this idea of thousands of students and the excitement that surrounds that first day and just, we didn’t have the numbers that we have,” Hill said. “But I was so happy to see students again. It was a smaller number than we normally have because we have cohorts going on, but it was just as exciting and great to see in-person.”

“We’ve been doing it in distance learning, but it’s different when they’re physically, actually on campus. It just transforms the whole environment of the school. It’s very exciting. Not quite what I expected, but at the end of the day? I’m very satisfied,” he added.

Corona del Mar Middle School principal Rebecca Gogel said that the first day went “extremely smoothly” and that her staff didn’t have any issues with students not wanting to wear masks, but they did have to remind some of them a few times to socially distance.

“It was just so great to see kids in real life. We really missed them. That’s the joy of the job and the work that we get to do is with kids, so the energy came back,” Gogel said.

Corey Delahunt, with campus security, directs foot traffic at Corona Del Mar High School.
Corey Delahunt, with campus security, directs foot traffic as students leave the Corona del Mar middle and high school campus.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Catherine White, 12, said it was her first day at her new school. She’d gone to Andersen Elementary the year before.

“I thought it was going to be way more stressful than I thought, but it was not stressful at all,” Catherine said. “I think it’s way more fun than the first day of Zoom school.”

Catherine said she wasn’t as nervous Sunday night, but that she was worried when Monday morning came that she might embarrass herself somehow. She said it was stressful and she was scared, but her day turned out pretty well.

For eighth-grader Chloe Kwon, Monday turned out pretty well, she said. She got to see her friends again, and there were fewer people in the classrooms.

Natalie Gurney, 12, said she helped represent students in the discussions on how to keep campuses safe for in-person instruction. She said it was “really cool” that they got student input on reopening and that they were able to voice what their concerns were.

Natalie said she had a good first day back and that it was exciting to see all her teachers for the first time and her friends in person again.

“Even though we had to social distance and wear masks, I think it was better than online learning,” she said.

Natalie Gurney, 13, waits to be picked up at Corona Del Mar Middle School on Monday, Nov. 9.
Natalie Gurney, 13, waits to be picked up after her first day of in-person learning at Corona del Mar Middle School.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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

  • Santa Ana: 12,049 cases; 321 deaths
  • Anaheim: 10,774 cases; 326 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,747 cases; 86 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 2,142 cases; 45 deaths
  • Irvine: 2,065 cases; 14 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,300 cases; 26 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 622 cases; 21 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 261 cases; fewer than five deaths

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

  • 0 to 17: 4,765 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 9,405 cases; five deaths
  • 25 to 34: 13,472 cases; 21 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 9,973 cases; 39 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 10,123 cases; 117 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 7,548 cases; 209 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 3,818 cases; 299 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 2,074 cases; 327 deaths
  • 85 and older: 1,604 cases; 494 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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