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As the Newport-Mesa Unified School District prepares for students to return to classrooms at the end of the month, opposition to its reopening plans is mounting from concerned community members.

District officials announced earlier this month they intend to open schools for hybrid instruction on Sept. 29 for kindergarten through second grade, on Oct. 1 for third to sixth grade and on Oct. 12 for seventh to twelfth grade.

Petitions with over 500 unique signatures combined are pushing for the district to hold off on that as schools all over Orange County prepare to offer classroom instruction. Still some districts are choosing not to resume in-person classes quite yet.

Alex Goodman, a teacher in Newport-Mesa Unified, and his wife were two of the primary writers of an op-ed published in the Daily Pilot where community members shared their concerns about the district’s reopening plans — calling it careless and unsafe.

“A lot of us feel like if we waited a little bit more, if we took our time until we got the community spread down to a minimal rate and took more time to kind of put in place all the needed safety protocols, then we could reopen in a way where we felt a little more confident,” he said in an interview.

A fierce debate to open or not reopen schools amid a global pandemic has raged in Orange County for months. 

Some parents and educators are concerned with inequities caused by distance learning and the effects long term virtual education has on students’ mental health. Some are worried that rushing to return to in-person instruction will only lead to a spike in cases and more deaths.

Many can see both sides of the argument and feel there is no right option.

Tamara Fairbanks, the president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said the district is split over reopening and the district’s board of education has been catering to those wanting to get students back to the classrooms.

“One section of the community has been emailing them incessantly about making sure that we have in-person instruction and then there’s another group in the community that has been emailing them saying, what are you doing to make the school safe? So you have kind of these polar opposites,” Fairbanks said. “Because of public pressure our district seems to be rushing into going back to schools.”

Board member Martha Fluor said the district has published a very detailed reopening plan which they have discussed at multiple board meetings. The plan was updated online Sept. 11.

“It’s interesting because prior to this, we were getting a lot of calls to reopen our schools,” Fluor said. “It’s not to say that we didn’t get both. We are now getting the entirely opposite side from those families who are still very concerned.”

Fluor said she was confident in the plan and the timing of returning to the classroom. 

Fairbanks said the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers has been in communication with the district with the goal of making sure safety measures are in place before teachers go back to in-person lessons.

“Part of the challenge is that we don’t have definitive answers from our employer about what actually is happening. There’s a lot of ‘we’re still trying to figure that out,’” Fairbanks said. “It’s way too vague.”

She expressed concern from teachers about having to screen students for the virus by sight without doing a temperature check. She also expressed apprehension about not receiving definitive answers on the procedure for what to do if a student contracts the virus, as well as about protocols for contact tracing and testing. 

The district plan does not make it clear if testing will be required but states that if someone tests positive, they will be required to quarantine.

Fairbanks also said there is worry from teachers about the district not requiring students in second grade or lower to wear a mask.

“We’re not requiring it but it is recommended by the CDC guidelines and the OC (Health Care Agency), as well as the state. They are recommended but not required,” Fluor said.

State guidelines strongly encourage implementing a face covering requirement for this age group of students but the standards require masks for students from third to twelfth grade.

The district during the summer required parents and students to commit to full virtual learning for the academic year or a phased return back to the classroom. 

Board member Fluor said over 900 students are enrolled in the district’s virtual learning program called Cloud Campus. She said the district is reaccessing if it will allow families to back out of in-person learning but that it’s not currently an option at this time.

“We also have the option that if families present us with medical exemptions and a determination that that is needed. We certainly will adhere to that,” Fluor said.

Goodman, the teacher, said moving to Cloud Campus has limited options for students.

“To move to the Cloud Campus, the students had to disenroll from their current school so they were not able to keep the same classes that they were in or the same teachers. A lot of the classes that students were taking at their homeschool are not offered on the Cloud Campus,” Goodman said.

“They can’t play sports for their homeschool if they move to the cloud. It really is like a complete transfer and so a lot of parents didn’t choose that option and now they’re feeling like they’re stuck,” he said.

Goodman said that he feels the district hasn’t taken a lot of community input especially from teachers in formulating the plan and there are still many unanswered questions. He feels the district should wait longer to reopen.

“The state has this four tiered plan, and the yellow tier is minimal risk. That to me seems like the place we should be. I don’t know if others have different particular thresholds that they would be comfortable with. For me, that would be the ideal target,” Goodman said. 

Orange County is currently in the red tier, the second tier in the state’s reopening blueprint.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam. 

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