Newport-Mesa Unified to return secondary students to full-day classes starting the week of April 26

Students return to Costa Mesa High school on the first day back to school under a hybrid learning model in November.
Students return to Costa Mesa High school on the first day back to school under a hybrid learning model in November. On Thursday, Newport-Mesa Unified officials approved a return to full-day instruction.
(File Photo)

Responding to parents’ requests to see middle- and high-school students allowed back on campus full time, Newport-Mesa Unified School Districts have approved a return to full-day instruction for secondary students, with some minor modifications, the starting week of April 26.

In a special meeting Thursday evening, Supt. Russell Lee-Sung explained how district officials and site administrators had convened to discuss the option of increasing face time between students and teachers, who’ve been coming to campus part time under a hybrid learning model since November.

“We have done our best in distance learning, but it has its limitations. If we can get kids back to in-person, that is our first objective,” he explained.

Lee-Sung described a framework under which students would be allowed back into classrooms for full instruction four days per week, with one day of remote learning to be determined by each school site.

The news comes days after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state would be lifting its “Blue Print for a Safer Economy” shutdown guidelines as of June 15, pending a continued decline in coronavirus cases as more COVID-19 vaccinations are distributed statewide.

As of Thursday, an online COVID-19 dashboard maintained by Newport-Mesa reported 14 coronavirus infections throughout the district.

Trustees voted March 30 to return elementary students to full-day instruction five days per week beginning April 21, after spring break. Learners in all grades will be seated 3 feet apart, in accordance with updated guidelines released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The transmission of COVID at our school sites is almost non-existent,” Lee-Sung said, adding that such trends nationwide are causing agencies like the CDC to revise standards on school reopening. “They’re realizing school is a safe place for students and staff.”

Some members of the public approved the transition. Jennifer Frank, an instructor at Orange Coast College and the mother of a freshman at Newport Harbor High School, said students are suffering from too much distance learning.

“With vaccinations readily available for all teachers and administrators and with students over the age of 16 soon able to get the Pfizer vaccine, I think it is incumbent upon the board to get our students back in school in person for as many hours as possible,” Frank said. “We have mitigated as many health factors as possible, and it is time to get them back.”

Arsham Dionysian, a junior at Corona del Mar High School said it was still too soon to bring students and teachers back to campuses nearly full time, especially given news of coronavirus variants that may affect more children than previous strains of the virus.

“We are good where we are at,” Dionysian said, describing recent new outbreaks in Michigan. “I do not want to go forward — we are not ready yet.”

Tamara Fairbanks, president of Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said educators also had concerns about safety and upending learning schedules and test preparation so close to the end of the school year.

“When these secondary employees request a plan that fosters academic achievement and safety, they do that because they care about their students,” she said. “Please consider the humanity of our students and do what is safe.”

Trustee Leah Ersoylu agreed she was uncomfortable with sending kids back when many adults are themselves still working remotely and the opportunity for virus transmission still exists.

“Many of us haven’t gone back to our offices yet, so the idea of putting hundreds of kids back to, basically, their office and switching rooms repeatedly doesn’t sit well with me,” she said.

Board President Karen Yelsey said given the many coronavirus protections that have been put in place already, she was more concerned about the social and emotional risks of continuing to keep kids from school.

“To me, the ideal place for these students is in the classroom,” she said. “It’s just imperative for them to get back to as much normalcy (as possible), and this is our new normal. Personally, I really feel strongly we need to take this leap.”

Ultimately, board members voted 6-1 to approve Lee-Sung’s recommendation, with Ersoylu casting the dissenting vote. In a subsequent motion, trustees voted 5-2 to bring back the 100% virtual Cloud Campus for the 2021-22 school year.

Lee-Sung said he would work with Cloud Campus Principal Mike Sciacca to survey some 1,700 families at the virtual school, as well as about 1,500 secondary students enrolled this semester in a “cohort C,” who attend classes remotely but still within the structure of their home schools, to determine interest so enrollment planning could begin.

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