Newport-Mesa Unified secondary students will return to distance learning in January, officials say

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

Citing rising coronavirus infections and related absences among students, teachers and support staff — and the burden that’s placing on the successful operation of the district — Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials have decided to pull secondary students back to distance learning in January.

Supt. Russell Lee Sung said in a special meeting Thursday the district faces a workforce crisis as more employees test positive for the virus or self-quarantine and as Newport-Mesa’s health department staff become overwhelmed by contact tracing and reporting duties.

Anticipating a further surge following the upcoming winter break, officials recommended middle and high school students return to distance learning upon the Jan. 4 start of the new semester, continuing to Jan. 22.

“It’s not just one thing — this is one of those decisions that is based on the totality of a lot of factors and considerations,” Lee-Sung told board members. “We are very concerned about what will happen after the holidays.”

Shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived at Orange County hospitals on Wednesday. By Thursday morning, healthcare workers lined up to get the first doses at Hoag and Mission hospitals.

Elementary schools, which have proved smaller and easier to manage, will continue to report to campus next semester under the same hybrid learning model.

Asst. Superintendent Sara Jocham, who oversees the district’s health services department, provided a breakdown of virus cases recorded so far, explaining employees are spending hours and hours each day on the phone with the infected and the exposed.

From Oct. 27 through November, 71 students reported testing positive for coronavirus, while another 178 self-quarantined. So far in December, 128 positive cases have been reported with 72 students in quarantine, requiring nearly 600 follow-up calls from school nurses.

Meanwhile, 75 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since October, while another 129 have reported symptoms of the virus and 181 reportedly had close contact with an infected individual.

Some 141 students and staff coronavirus cases are currently being monitored, compared to 29 in early November. Jocham said health services employees and site administrators are working on nights and weekends to keep people informed about what steps to take.

“This was busy and hard when we had 29 (cases),” she said. “Now that we have 141, it’s becoming almost paralyzing to the work we do.”

Leona Olson, assistant superintendent of human resources, reported similar challenges. She explained support staff — including instructional aides, food service workers and custodians — have been especially impacted by the virus, followed by teachers. And locating substitute teachers has been daunting.

“We are finding now substitutes are turning down jobs, not feeling comfortable going into the classrooms,” Olson said.

Board members received 278 public comments on the recommendation. Among them was elementary school employee Katie Riccio, who suggested Newport-Mesa return all schools to a distance learning model, not just secondary schools.

“This is a safety issue for the entire district, not just secondary schools,” Riccio said. “The COVID rates in Orange County are soaring and staying open, even in the hybrid model, puts students and staff alike at a higher risk for contracting the virus.”

Rapidly filling hospitals in Orange County have been ordered not to redirect ambulances from their emergency rooms to other medical facilities.

Parent Rachel Duffy, however, said she was more afraid of the risks associated with continued distance learning than of the coronavirus.

“Please keep our children in school. Their mental well-being is at stake,” she urged board members. “I’m not concerned about my child getting COVID but, rather, feeling suicidal.”

Trustee Krista Weigand asked why officials seemed to go back on their word after saying closures would not occur until rates were above 5% at a single school or grade level. Lee-Sung explained while the 5% trigger is a state guideline, there was no way the district could sustain that kind of a hit.

“The thought of us waiting until that 5% to close is absolutely frightening to me,” he said. “Right now, we’re looking at .5% to 1%...and look at what it has done to our organization. This recommendation is the right thing to do under the totality of circumstances.”

Board members voted 6-1 to return secondary schools to distance learning for the start of the spring semester through Jan. 22, with Weigand casting the lone dissenting vote.

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