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The Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Education later today will consider closing secondary schools after winter break and returning to online learning until Jan. 25.

“Keep in mind that regardless of the county COVID-19 data or the regional stay at home order, NMUSD schools would be able to reopen for in-person instruction after this temporary shift to Distance Learning,” reads an announcement from the district.

“This is the most challenging period of the pandemic and we will continue to prioritize the safety of students and staff as our most important guiding principle in our decisions and actions.”

Elementary schools would remain open but extracurricular activities would be suspended starting Winter Break all the way through Jan. 22.

The board is considering this move due to cases increasing and are trying to eliminate student-staff and student-student contact at schools serving older students as well as recent staffing issues.

“The board was informed on Tuesday evening that we are having a staffing issue because of COVID related issues, where we’re having trouble filling spots with people out of staff, either with teachers or with classified employees,” Board president Karen Yelsey told the Voice of OC Thursday morning.

There are some new faces on the board with new trustees elected this year in three districts. 

Tamara Fairbanks, the Newport Beach Federation of Teachers president, has not responded to a request for comment.

The Newport Beach Federation of Teachers have been calling for this type of closure since late November

The union has raised concerns about the cleanliness of classrooms and common areas, students not following safety measures, and the district’s public website  for reporting cases. 

Yelsey said she feels confident that the district has been following all the safety measures.

“We feel that we have followed every protocol. Our classrooms are clean, they’re sanitized  (and) we have custodial service there. That’s why, we’re concerned if we do have more custodians out, how are we going to replace them,” she said.

According to the Newport-Mesa dashboard, there have been 141 cases of the virus in the district.

At various districts in the county, concerns have popped up about Coronavirus reporting at schools because testing is voluntary and the case numbers listed are dependent on self reporting that the public reporting dashboard isn’t accurate.

School district spokespeople have defended their dashboard approach stating they accurately show all the cases reported to them

Dr. Clayton Chau, the director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said last week he can’t require students to test for the virus.

The California Department of Public Health and Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, have said the recent surge of cases and the new stay at home order that accompanied them was not due to school reopenings or cases connected to schools.

But leadership from 19 Teacher unions have called on the districts to go back online because of the case numbers.

La Habra City School District has already done so and so has Brea Olinda.

This week Los Alamitos High School temporarily shifted to online learning until Jan. 16. As of today the school has 36 cases according to the district dashboard.

Many say distant learning isn’t easy — even those in support of schools closing right now acknowledge this. Proponents of distance learning believe that this is the safest thing to do to keep the community safe right now.

Others are worried about the effects of keeping children out of the classroom for long periods on students’ mental health because of a virus that they say doesn’t really impact children the way it does older people. Some proponents of keeping schools open have even gone to say that teachers are being lazy.

Some students are reporting dropping grades, lack of motivation and increased work loads.

Schools however are not only made of students, they are made up of staff and teachers as well many who are older. Teachers have told the Voice of OC in the past and even spoken out at district board meetings stating that this year has been hard and that they’re working longer hours and have more responsibilities as schools adapt to the pandemic.

Many want to be back in the classroom but some just don’t feel it’s safe.

A tug of war match over the reopening of schools has been going on for a good part of the year now. 

“We really want to have our kids in school so we’re looking to figure out the way that we can have the kids there as much as possible as soon as possible and keep them there safely,” Yelsey said.

Today’s meeting will be broadcasted live here at 4:30 p.m. on Zoom.

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

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