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Newport-Mesa Unified says secondary schools will reopen next week, but some are still concerned

Students return to Costa Mesa High school  Nov. 9 after months of distance learning.
Students return to Costa Mesa High School Nov. 9 after months distance learning. Newport-Mesa Unified secondary schools returned to remote study Jan. 4 but will go back to in-person classes starting Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

After a three-week hiatus from in-person learning — undertaken to address an anticipated post-holiday spike in coronavirus infections and districtwide staffing challenges — Newport-Mesa Unified School District is moving ahead with its plan to reopen middle and high school campuses on Monday.

Board members decided last month secondary schools would return to distance learning at the Jan. 4 start of the spring semester for a three-week period. The plan was to bring students back to campuses on Jan. 25 to resume learning under a partially in-person hybrid model.

With that date looming, and with Orange County coronavirus cases subsiding from recent record-breaking highs, Newport-Mesa Supt. Russell Lee-Sung on Friday announced middle and high school students were to report back to classes on Monday.

“We will continue to closely monitor staff and student [coronavirus] cases and the impact of COVID-19 to our workforce, who support students inside and outside the classroom,” Lee-Sung wrote in a message to the school community.

Lee-Sung confirmed district health employees had begun receiving COVID-19 vaccines as Phase 1A essential workers and could be followed by other employees, deemed Phase 1B, sometime in February.

The district’s online COVID-19 dashboard Friday listed 138 school-site coronavirus cases, a decline from the 185 infections reported Jan. 15.

But some are concerned the voluntary reporting system, which automatically removes cases after 14 days, doesn’t give a true picture of transmissions.

“The big problem is those are only the cases they know about,” said Newport Harbor High School English teacher Alex Goodman. “The only people showing up are people who test positive and volunteer that to the district.”

Goodman said in the final weeks of the fall semester, as few as three students were showing up for in-person classes, while the rest attended remotely by choice. Some were isolating at home due to possible coronavirus exposure, while others were staying away as a precaution.

As an added safety measure, Goodman started teaching English lessons outdoors. Now, as teachers and students look ahead to Monday’s reopening, there’s still a lot of uncertainty, he said.

“A lot of us are really worried about going back with things as bad as they are,” Goodman added, bringing up new concerns about a more contagious variant strain of the virus. “It’s so hard to know what to do.”

Soka University in Aliso Viejo on Saturday will become the second super point-of-dispensing vaccination site in O.C., joining Disneyland, which opened last week.

Tamara Fairbanks, president of Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said by email Friday many educators are still “deeply concerned” about the decision to reopen secondary schools while virus cases remain relatively high.

“As COVID-19 infection rates surge throughout the county, we do not believe that NMUSD has the consistent protocols of physical distancing, wellness screenings, and COVID-19 notification processes in place to keep our students, parents and communities safe,” Fairbanks wrote.

When Newport-Mesa Unified trustees called a special meeting on Dec. 17, the last day of classes before the winter break, to discuss a possible return to distance learning, things were in an uncertain state.

County health experts anticipated a post-holiday coronavirus surge that would pack hospitals and intensive care units with sicker-than-usual COVID-19 patients. NMUSD had a reported 149 infections.

But another consideration was the complexity of keeping schools functioning during a pandemic. Contact tracing took hours upon hours of staff time, while replacing teachers fallen ill or under quarantine had become a daunting task.

“The volume of this, I need to share with you, has absolutely paralyzed our department,” Leona Olson, assistant superintendent of human resources, confessed at the meeting.

District spokeswoman Annette Franco said Friday the idea of an adaptable learning model that would flex in response to an ever-changing health outlook was always part of the plan. Officials will continue to monitor school cases and adjust as needed.

As parents delay crucial immunizations for their children due to fears of exposing them to COVID-19, Orange County pediatricians are concerned about future outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and meningitis.

Franco said the temporary reclosure of secondary school campuses gave Newport-Mesa the gift of time — time to reallocate staff, including custodians and substitute teachers, to still-open elementary schools and allow instructors under precautionary quarantine to continue teaching from home.

“Thankfully, it did help,” she added. “The big thing we’re really doing now is pushing the importance of taking safety precautions outside of school. [Because] we can control the schools, but we can’t control what happens outside of school.”

And as the COVID-19 vaccine begins trickling into Orange County, hope seems to be on the horizon.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now,” Franco said.

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