Ongoing pandemic, resultant school reclosures deepen divisions at Newport-Mesa Unified

Students and parents protest outside the Newport-Mesa Unified School District office on Oct. 23.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

As Newport-Mesa Unified School District middle and high school teachers used a non-student day Friday to decompress from a chaotic first semester, on the final work day before winter break district officials sent out a quick communique to the school community.

The message informed district families all secondary students would return to distance learning on the Jan. 4 start of spring semester. A two-month dalliance with in-person learning — which saw kids return to campuses under a hybrid schedule — would be paused, at least through Jan. 22.

“[A] significant increase of COVID-19 cases throughout the state, Orange County and our local community has impacted our district and workforce, severely limiting our ability to find appropriate substitute employees who provide critical services,” Supt. Russell Lee-Sung explained.

“Now, more than ever, we encourage everyone to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by adhering to the protocols.”

Members of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers and California School Employee Assn. in a Sept. 20 demonstration.
Members of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers joined California School Employee Assn. members Sunday in a demonstration at Costa Mesa High School.
(Photo by Kimberly Claytor)

The ongoing pandemic has created a widening chasm in Newport-Mesa Unified between those who strongly believe kids should return to classes for the educational, social and emotional benefits of in-person learning and those who worry the county’s record-shattering infection rates can, and will, defeat the district’s best defenses.

During a special meeting Thursday to determine whether to reclose secondary campuses in January, board President Karen Yelsey refuted suspicions the district was trying to sneak one past unsuspecting parents.

“What we’re going to be discussing today we just heard about Tuesday night,” she said, adding Lee-Sung had the power to make a unilateral decision but that board members wanted to be included. “We wanted to hear the data and be a part of making that decision — that’s why we’re here tonight.”

A reported 278 members of the public submitted comments at the meeting, weighing in on whether secondary students could, or should, safely attend in-person classes. Though opinions were split down the middle, board members ultimately voted 6-1 to approve the transition to online learning.

Students return to Costa Mesa High School for in-person learning Nov. 9.
Students return to Costa Mesa High School on the first day back for secondary students in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District on Nov. 9.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Among the commenters was Kevin Fairfax, whose daughters attend Ensign Intermediate School and Mariners Elementary in Newport Beach. He spoke on behalf of keeping kids in classes but said Friday he hadn’t known about the districtwide impact of infections and quarantine-related absences.

“I didn’t get anything that would back it up that would let me go, ‘All right. Half your schools have no custodians, then that’s a no-brainer.’ We didn’t get that,” Fairfax said. “Or you’re canceling classes left and right because you can’t find substitutes. I’m willing to listen and get data and say, ‘OK. You made your point.’”

While middle and high school students will be returning to laptop learning at home in the new year, Newport-Mesa elementary schools will continue in-person instruction under a modified half-day in-person schedule. That means Fairfax will have one child doing distance learning, while the other jets back and forth to campus daily.

Several members of the public, including elementary school employees, tuned into Thursday’s virtual meeting to urge district leaders to return all schools to distance learning as a precaution against a post-holiday coronavirus surge.

Orange County coronavirus hospitalizations have more than doubled since the start of the month, pushing hospitals past the brink. Health Care Agency Director Dr. Clayton Chau said he was “fearful” for the upcoming holidays.

“If you perceive a danger to secondary school employees and students from COVID, and you are recommending distance learning in January for them, I feel that elementary should be given the same protection,” said Julie Smith, a third-grade teacher College Park Elementary School. “I hope you do the right thing to protect all of your employees and students.”

Lee-Sung explained in Friday’s message elementary students benefited more from in-person learning where, on smaller campuses, student cohorts could be more easily controlled. Reclosing high schools, he continued, would reduce the number of contacts and allow for critical staff to be redistributed to still-open elementary schools.

Although board members approved Thursday’s recommendation, some emphasized their desire to bring secondary students back to brick-and-mortar schools on Jan. 25.

“I do want to reaffirm that if we do this … that we are firmly coming back on the 25th,” she said. “I think we need to make that commitment that our secondary students will be back on the 25th.”

Trustee Charlene Metoyer urged students, staff and families to be safe over winter break.

“Please do everything you can over break to not break safety rules,” she said. “If you want [schools] to be open, everybody in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa has to do their part.”

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