As case numbers climb in Newport-Mesa, teachers and staff look for guidance

Students leave school at Newport Harbor High.
Students leave school at Newport Harbor High School on the first day of school in August 2021. As public health officials announced the “highest number ever” of pediatric COVID-19 patients this week, caseloads likewise continue to grow among school staff and students in area school districts.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

As public health officials announced the “highest number ever” of pediatric COVID-19 patients this week, caseloads likewise continue to grow among school staff and students in area school districts.

In the Newport-Mesa Unified School District alone, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus slightly declined from the 791 cases reported Tuesday to 709 by Friday. This compares to highs in the 100s reported last year in this same month, similarly fueled by the anticipated post-holiday spike of exposures.

In December 2020, assistant superintendent of human resources Leona Olson said the volume of cases was so high that month that it “paralyzed” the department, as contact tracing took many hours of staff time. Replacing teachers who were either ill or under quarantine due to exposure was also proving difficult.

District officials then made the decision to close Newport-Mesa secondary schools and pull students and teaching staff back into online learning, citing infection rates, growing positive cases among staff and the burdens of contact tracing.

Spokeswoman Annette Franco said this week Newport-Mesa remains committed to keeping schools open for in-person instruction this winter while continuing to implement mitigation strategies.

During a recent district board meeting, teachers and classified staff asked what the district’s parameters are that might trigger the operations back to distance learning.

“Everyone is doing their best to make this work. And [in] many ways, it’s working. Schools are open and kids are learning, but I might be the only one here to tell you, everyone is not OK,” said Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers president Sarah Auwarter.

Classified School Employee Assn. chapter president Eleanor Rebard shared similar sentiments, adding that classified staff were still in support of in-person learning but were concerned about safety.

“We want to stay with in-person learning and we want to support you, but we want the expectation for an exit if necessary,” Rebard said, adding that members were concerned an unsafe environment for students as staffing issues continue to persist. “Our members are overworked, stressed and, in some cases, scared.”

Earlier this month, the county reported that a third child under the age of 5 had died in December over COVID-19 complications in Orange County.

The district issued a notice last Wednesday regarding changes to how it conducts contact tracing and notifications.

Previously, school officials would contact families or human resources would contact employees to inform them if they had been in close contact — defined as someone who was within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for more than 15 minutes — and advise them on next steps that they should be taking.

“Now, many school districts, including ours, have shifted from informing just close contacts to informing all families in that classroom or work site when there is a positive case, when there is consistent mask wearing,” said Franco. “Where there is not consistent mask wearing, we continue with contact tracing and sending close contact notifications.”

This mirrors guidance issued by the state.

Newport-Mesa Unified is not the only district facing an uptick in coronavirus cases. As of Monday, there were 15 cases in the Huntington Beach City School District. The Ocean View School District reported 437 confirmed cases among staff and students on Thursday.

Laguna Beach Unified reported 190 active cases, with at least 19 students and two staff members in quarantine because of close contact. Fountain Valley reported 266 in its staff and students, and the Huntington Beach Union High School District reported 455 cases. On the whole, all districts are seeing higher numbers of cases than reported earlier this month when students were returning to school, and they face much of the same struggles with staff shortages.

Countywide, there have now been at least 10,199 cases in schools between students, staff and teachers since the Orange County Health Care Agency began tracking that data in August 2020.

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