Newport-Mesa Unified trustees nix plan to cut in-person learning hours for elementary students

Rebecca Peranio, left, with daughter Serafina during pick-up following the first day of in-person school at Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach on Sept. 29. A plan to reduce in-person hours was recently rejected by school board members.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

An agreement between the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and its teachers union — which would have eliminated one half-day of in-person learning for elementary school students to allow for teacher prep time — was rejected by board members, who called the move “unacceptable.”

Trustees were asked in a meeting Tuesday to approve a memo of understanding reached between district negotiators and representatives from the Newport Mesa Federation of Teachers regarding working conditions under a hybrid learning model.

That agreement contained language regarding parent teacher conferences, special day classroom teacher compensation and preparation time.

But controversy arose over a portion of the MOU pertaining to the hybrid schedule for elementary students, who currently attend in-person classes for half days in a morning or afternoon cohort four days a week, excluding Wednesdays, learning online the rest of the day.

On Wednesdays, both cohorts make condensed appearances during the morning, allowing teachers time to prepare lessons and plan in the afternoon.

 Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa
Students and parents walk to Rea Elementary School on Sept. 29 as the Costa Mesa campus reopened for fall classes.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Instead, the agreement proposed returning all elementary students to distance learning each Wednesday, where they’d receive one hour of math and English instruction and do 30 minutes of asynchronous learning.

NMFT President Tamara Fairbanks said in a comment at Tuesday’s meeting the change would not only give teachers the resource more time but provide for parents one consistent schedule for Wednesdays and allow kids from both cohorts, otherwise separated, to learn virtually together.

With ICU beds dwindling and students suffering in online learning, L.A. groups file litigation seeking in-person teaching; Orange County teachers plead for a campus shutdown.

“We exchanged the best solution within our grasp on how to meet the needs of teachers and students,” Fairbanks said.

However, many parents and community members — 54 of whom submitted public comments on Tuesday’s meeting item — opposed the move.

“Being in the classroom with their teachers and peers is crucial, not only to learning but mental health as well,” Michelle Huebner said. “They need every minute they can get. We need to be moving forward, not backward, when it comes to education this year.”

Parents walk their children to Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa.
Parents walk their children to Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Board trustees mainly sided with parents. Trustee Karen Yelsey, appointed to serve as board president during Tuesday’s reorganization meeting, said she felt beholden to represent her constituents and believed officials should work to lengthen kids’ time on campuses.

“To take away any [in-person] learning time from them is not something any of the parents I’ve talked to would want,” Yelsey said. “I hope something can go back and be worked on to make it more acceptable.”

Trustee Charlene Metoyer said she appreciated the work of negotiators on both sides but could not support the memo’s distance learning proposal.

“When I took this job, my main filter was to do what’s best for children, and I believe children should be in school,” she said.

The guidelines state that no athletic competitions can take place prior to Jan. 25. Sports are placed for return in corresponding color tiers, with football in the orange/moderate risk tier.

Ultimately, board members refused to make a motion to vote on the MOU, which effectively killed the proposal.

District negotiators and union leaders have been in talks for months over several aspects of learning and teaching during the pandemic, even as officials moved ahead with plans to return elementary and secondary students back to campuses under a modified schedule starting Sept. 29.

Last month, citing a rise in coronavirus cases and an inability to regulate teen mask wearing and social distancing, NMFT asked the district to move secondary schools back to a distance-learning model. District leaders declined, saying public health guidelines allow schools to remain open so long as cases represent fewer than 5% of a school or grade level.

Meanwhile, a COVID-19 dashboard maintained at Newport-Mesa Unified’s website, reported 133 infections districtwide Wednesday, including 23 at Newport Harbor High School, 18 at Estancia High School, 11 at Costa Mesa Middle and High schools and 10 infections at Corona del Mar Middle and High schools. That is a decline from Tuesday’s case count, which reached 139.

Asst. Supt. Sara Jocham, who oversees the district’s Health Services Department, said a team was working diligently to respond to coronavirus cases and notify people who may have come into contact with infected individuals.

“[We’re] reaching out to families when students are absent due to some kind of COVID-related symptoms and really following up and finding out from them what’s going on,” she said.

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

Also Tuesday, Newport-Mesa officials officially welcomed incoming board members Leah Ersoylu, Carol Crane and Krista Weigand, who were elected by district voters in November to represent trustee areas 1, 3 and 6, respectively.

Supt. Russell Lee-Sung thanked the newcomers for taking on enormous responsibility during difficult times.

“It is really special for all three of you to be stepping up and be part of leadership in education, particularly now,” he said. “We can really do some incredible work here in the district — welcome aboard.”

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