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Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers Urges Return to Remote Learning in Secondary Schools

Following a continued rise in COVID-19 cases in Orange County, the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers (NMFT) sent an open letter to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District (NMUSD) that called for a return of middle and high school students to remote learning on Nov. 23.

“In the last weeks, teachers have become increasingly alarmed at the inability of the school district to make good on its promise of maintaining a clean, safe, and secure environment,” the NMFT letter reads.

In September, the NMUSD planned to reopen secondary schools as early as Oct. 12. This date was then postponed following a 5-1 vote by the board, delaying the reopening to as late as Dec. 17. After negotiations with the NMFT, the district reopened its middle and high schools in November using a hybrid cohort model, dividing students into two cohorts that alternate attending in-person classes two days a week.

Despite this mutual agreement, the NMFT claims that the hybrid model has been largely ineffective and that its execution has not aligned with the district’s goals of providing safe in-person instruction during the pandemic.

“The current state of the hybrid is a complete and utter failure,” the NMFT said in the letter. “The risks far outweigh any of the intended benefits. It is not working on any level: Not from a health and safety standpoint. Not from a socio-emotional standpoint and not from an educational standpoint.”

According to the NMUSD’s school reopening plan, the district promised that schools would be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected upon return to in-person, provide face coverings and masks to students and staff, and maintain social distancing procedures in and out of the classroom. According to the teachers’ union, however, these guidelines are not being followed effectively.

“Secondary students are not observing social distancing during passing, lunch and coming to and from campuses,” the NMFT said in the letter. “Mask wearing does not occur when these students are outside the watchful eyes of their teachers in the classroom.” 

In response to the NMFT, Public Relations Officer for the NMUSD Annette Franco explained in a statement that the district has been making its best efforts to provide a safe environment, citing that the NMUSD is “committed to providing our students the opportunity to attend class in-person while maintaining a safe environment.”

The NMUSD’s district-wide COVID-19 dashboard, which tracks confirmed cases of the disease among students and staff at its school sites, has reported 30 cases within the last 14 days in secondary schools as of Dec. 4. This adds up to a total of 58 across all its school sites. The NMFT claims in their letter that “the so called COVID Dashboard on the district does not accurately reflect the risk in this community.” 

The NMUSD officially reopened schools from grades seventh to 12th for in-person instruction on Nov. 9 through the hybrid model. In-person hybrid attendance is not mandatory. 

For students who elect to remain fully remote, they must enroll in the NMUSD’s virtual Cloud Campus school program, with the option to return to their prior schools in the future. According to the Los Angeles Times, approximately 2,000 elementary and secondary NMUSD students are currently enrolled in Cloud Campus out of an estimated 20,000 total students within the district.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new stay-at-home order system for the state to mitigate the impact of the looming second wave of COVID-19 during the holiday season. According to health officials, counties that fall under a 15% ICU capacity threshold are subjected to a stay-at-home order.

Although Orange County’s status in the most restrictive purple tier of California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy falls under this threshold, schools that are currently offering in-person instruction models are excluded from this statewide order.

“Guidance related to schools remain in effect and unchanged,” the order stated. “Schools that have previously reopened for in-person instruction may remain open, and schools may continue to bring students back for in-person instruction.”

As NMUSD schools continue to serve students in-person, the district is maintaining its confidence in following guidelines and monitoring COVID-19 transmission. 

“While local school districts have the authority to return to distance learning, our school COVID numbers do not warrant this transition and we remain committed to the hybrid instruction,” Franco said. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation and adhere to all state and county directives.”

Ariana Keshishian is a City News Intern for the 2020 fall quarter. She can be reached at ankeshis@uci.edu.