Commentary: Newport-Mesa schools continue to face COVID-19 challenges

Students leave school at Newport Harbor High School on Monday, Aug. 23 after their first day of school.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

It’s been 21 months since the pandemic upended how we live and work. For our teachers, it changed how they teach; for our children, how they learn; and for our community, how they make sense of an abundance of often conflicting information surrounding COVID-19 and the mandates that schools in California must abide by.

As a member of this community for more than 40 years, having been a parent of three children who are graduates of our schools, and serving as a board member of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for 15 years, I too am frustrated and concerned about the mixed messages and misinformation circulating in our community.

As elected representatives, all seven members of our board, serving as a bridge for parents and our school district, have consistently listened to community concerns and questions, and have responded in a timely and professional manner.

While some districts continue to operate virtual board meetings, our meetings have been in-person and open to the public since July. We recently amended our board policy to allow the public additional time to comment on topics not on our agenda. Per the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs local government conduct at board meetings, board members are prohibited from engaging in two-way dialogue with the public or responding to public comments. However, our superintendent can clarify and direct staff to follow up on matters within our jurisdiction.

Community members also have the ability to email, and all seven board members will receive a copy of your correspondence.

Our school district, like all public and private schools, is required to enforce COVID-19 mandates or face serious penalties from the state of California, which include closing our schools, financial penalties and/or legal penalties. As we have said since the beginning of the school year, our commitment and our focus is to keep schools open all day, every day, all year. As such, we must comply with state mandates.

While some have strongly argued that they are not in support of the requirement for students to wear masks indoors, our school district is not the governing body that has the authority to change health mandates. We are, however, required to follow the mandates.

The board is not considering a district-initiated vaccine mandate for students, and we have no intention of doing so. Parents who want to influence the state’s direction on this potential mandate should contact the governor’s office, as well as state Sen. Richard Pan’s office. Sen. Pan has introduced a very restrictive legislative vehicle that will not include a personal belief exemption.

As mentioned, our goal has been to keep our school open for in-person learning full time, all year. We have been successful in doing so in part because we have followed state health and safety guidelines. Additionally, we have opened sports to full-time practices and competition, and have reinstated all high school music and theatrical performances. Options to allow more volunteers on campus are currently being evaluated.

Operating a school district and offering safe in-person instruction to our 19,000 students is no easy feat, especially during the ongoing pandemic. Our teachers, certificated and classified employees, and administrators, who are all essential in providing a quality educational environment for students have been exceptional in navigating this pandemic with us and our community. COVID-19 continues to be a challenge for everyone, but we continue to do our best in support of students.

Karen Yelsey is the president of the NMUSD board of education.

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