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Newport-Mesa Unified teachers seek to reclose secondary schools as O.C. virus cases hit record high

Students exit Corona del Mar High and CdM Middle schools in Newport Beach on Nov. 9.
Students exit Corona del Mar High and CdM Middle schools in Newport Beach on Nov. 9. On Monday, teachers union officials urged the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to reclose secondary schools until safety protocols could be tightened up.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

With coronavirus cases surging statewide — and as Orange County health officials reported Monday a record 1,422 new infections in a single day — teachers in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District are urging officials to reclose secondary schools to in-person learning.

In a letter to school board members issued Monday, representatives of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers claimed an inability to regulate large gatherings of teens in common areas and insufficient COVID-19 reporting and contact tracing protocols were increasing the risk for exposure.

“[We] are compelled to speak plainly and openly on the ill-planned and experimental hybrid model, its failed implementation and operation and the imminent danger it has created,” the letter begins.

The missive comes days after state officials issued a statewide curfew prohibiting nonessential activities after 10 p.m. and one week after Orange County was moved back to the most restrictive purple reopening tier, indicating “widespread” transmissions.

The order prohibits most nonessential activity outside the home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in counties in the strictest tier of the state’s reopening road map. It begins Saturday.

Union leaders are asking that thousands of middle and high schoolers, who came back to campuses earlier this month under a modified schedule, returned to distance learning following the Thanksgiving break.

“The hybrid model is a literal accident waiting to happen,” the letter states.

Corey Delahunt, with campus security, directs foot traffic as students leave Corona Del Mar High School.
Newport-Mesa Unified District instructors said they’ve been alarmed at teens congregating without masks outside the classroom, while a COVID-19 dashboard fails to reflect absenteeism from quarantining students.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

NMFT President Tamara Fairbanks said Monday teachers have become increasingly alarmed watching students socialize without masks, congregate inside vehicles and share food before, after and in between classes. She claims an online COVID-19 dashboard maintained by the district fails to paint an accurate portrait of risk.

“They’re congregating in large masses and they’re not complying with physical distancing at all,” she added. “And we’re seeing a lot of kids in quarantine, but kids in quarantine are not reflected in the dashboard.”

Fairbanks said teachers are noticing widespread absences, possibly indicating students who may be self-quarantining, and are sometimes not notified when someone in their class has tested positive for the coronavirus.

A coronavirus outbreak at Concordia University in Irvine has infected over 60 people. The school cancels athletic practices, urges against Thanksgiving travel.

NMUSD spokeswoman Annette Franco clarified Monday all confirmed coronavirus cases are input into a portal as soon as information is reported by district employees or by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“Whenever there is a confirmed case in our schools, we wait until all the appropriate people have been notified, and we add it to the dashboard,” she said.

As of Monday, the district had reported 35 school-site infections, including eight at Costa Mesa High and Middle schools, two at Newport Harbor High, three at Estancia High and two at Corona del Mar High and Middle schools. Another three were reported among district staff not working on school grounds.

In a districtwide statement responding to NMFT’s request to return secondary schools to distance learning, officials indicated they would continue to follow state guidance, which allows schools to remain unless multiple infections occur within a cohort or class, or more than 5% of a site’s teachers or students test positive for the coronavirus.

“Multiple safety precautions and procedures have been implemented in alignment with the California Department of Public Health Guidance. However, as with any new system there will be some challenges,” the response stated. “While COVID-19 data continues to rise … Orange County districts are not required to move to distance learning.”

The teachers union isn’t asking for the district to reclose its elementary schools, which reopened in September.

“The nature of the elementary model does not allow students to congregate during the school day,” Fairbanks said. “We would love for all schools to go to distance learning. However, our focus was to mitigate the spread at the secondary levels, where congregating and distancing is more difficult to manage.”

The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in Orange County, including cases, deaths, closures and restrictions.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Health Care Agency on Monday reported not only a record high number of daily infections that brought the county’s total to 71,116 cases, but a grim incline in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Some 428 residents were being treated in area hospitals — a 26% increase in the three-day average of hospitalizations and more than double figures from two weeks earlier — with 105 in intensive care units. Only 25% of ICU beds remained available countywide as of Monday.

In Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, the cities served by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, 293 children under the age of 18 have so far contracted the coronavirus, figures indicate. With no new deaths reported Monday, the county’s fatalities stand at 1,554.

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

  • Santa Ana: 13,641 cases; 324 deaths
  • Anaheim: 12,024 cases; 338 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 3,076 cases; 88 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 2,411 cases; 45 deaths
  • Irvine: 2,425 cases; 14 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,407 cases; 26 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 744 cases; 21 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 304 cases; fewer than five deaths

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

  • 0 to 17: 5,617 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 10,528 cases; four deaths
  • 25 to 34: 15,194 cases; 21 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 11,313 cases; 41 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 11,482 cases; 119 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 8,557 cases; 214 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 4,343 cases; 304 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 2,291 cases; 338 deaths
  • 85 and older: 1,743 cases; 512 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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