Newport-Mesa Opts to Postpone Reopening Schools for Seventh to 12th Graders

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School district on Sept. 20, 2020.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District middle and high schoolers will not return to class on Oct. 12, as originally intended.

District board members voted 5-1 during a special meeting Thursday afternoon to delay reopening schools for seventh grade through 12th grades no later than Dec. 17. 

This means if the high school and middle school principals feel ready to open up sooner than the next semester, which starts Jan. 4, they can go back to the district and the board and discuss that possibility. Originally a delay in reopening was proposed to last until next semester, but was amended at the meeting to allow for the possibility of an earlier return.

Still, a return might not happen until next semester.

The meeting was called after a discussion with high school and middle school principals, who all favor a delay.

For months, much of the district — like others in Orange County — has been divided over whether students should return to classes in person.

Around 1,000 emails were sent to the district from the public to comment on the proposed delay of return to schools and at one point over a 1,000 people were tuned in to the meeting, according to board President Martha Fluor. 

Random written comments from those in favor and opposed to the delay were selected and read at the meeting during a 30-minute period. No more than two minutes were spent on each comment.

Some teachers, parents and students in the district have been pushing back against a reopening. 

One commenter noted that a partial return to classes, as planned, for hybrid instruction, would decrease the number of hours students are instructed.

“It should have never come to this last minute flip flop but it is not too late for the district to own up to their mistaken plan and reverse course by postponing the hybrid method to at least a second semester,” the commenter wrote in.

The Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers — a union in the district — supported a delay. The union and the district are still in negotiations about school reopenings.

Other teachers, parents and community members want students back in the classroom.

“Our kids are suffering right now. My daughter’s feeling isolated and frustrated with virtual learning. Where is the foresight and leadership for this district? To tell us that in the eleventh hour that this not going to work is absolutely maddening,” one parent wrote.

“Our school leaders have completely failed our children. I was willing to overlook what a disaster the end of our school year was, especially for our seniors. But now almost four months later, our kids continue to be stuck in front of a screen,” the parent noted.

Elementary schools in the district were reopened Sept. 29.

Superintendent Russell Lee-Sung said factors that led to delay had to do with challenges balancing class sizes and cohorts to ensure social distancing, the decrease in instruction time due to the hybrid plan and a need to hire more teachers because many have said they are unable to return in person.

“We’ve heard many of those expressed concerns that have come forward from teachers, students and parents recently and that’s prompted a very deep discussion on the benefits and disadvantages of moving to a hybrid structure at this time,” Lee-Sung said at the meeting.

Board member Vicki Snell the lone dissenter — spoke about delaying the reopening of high schools and middle schools until next semester.

“I appreciate the issues with balancing cohorts and classrooms and I am perplexed by why that wouldn’t have already been done as you formed your classes because we all knew it was distance learning, and then into the hybrid (model),” Snell said. 

Snell suggested at the meeting to allow Estancia High School in Costa Mesa to reopen classrooms on Oct. 19. The school is using a different instructional model than others in the district that is only requiring students to take three to four classes rather than six to eight.

Snell did not receive the support needed to pass that amendment.

District officials apologized at the meeting as well as in a notice posted online after the meeting.

“We apologize for the change and recognize the impact on parents, families, students, and staff,” reads the notice. “We will continue to keep you updated on our progress.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.