more-oc-schools-temporarily-shifting-to-distance-learning-amid-rise-in-covid-19-cases

The ledger of Orange County schools returning exclusively to online learning in response to recent spikes in coronavirus cases is expanding, though many school districts are still offering varying levels of in-person instruction.

“I think we’re close to a 50-50 split now,” Grant Schuster, president of the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association, said of what he is seeing countywide in terms of having students on campuses.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District leaders on Thursday became the latest to pivot, saying students in middle school and high school will shift back to online-only learning through Jan. 22. Since early November the older students have been rotating between some online and some in-person learning.

The district’s elementary schools, where students have “greater educational benefit of in-person instruction” than their counterparts at the secondary level, will continue in the hybrid format.

Newport-Mesa has started its holiday break so the transition will take place when classes resume Jan. 4. Athletics and other extracurricular activities in the district also will be suspended until Jan. 22.

Newport-Mesa officials said the shift to distance learning will help curb “student-staff and student-student contact at our largest and most populated schools” during this current surge in COVID-19 cases.

The Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers was among 19 teacher unions in the county that signed a Dec. 10 letter to local superintendents and school boards encouraging districts to temporarily transfer back to distance learning. Several of the unions represent teachers in districts that have yet to return students to campuses.

“At this point, with the level of the deterioration in public health, there’s really no point in straining whatever safety protocols districts had put in place,” Schuster said. “We should all just take some time to look at where these numbers go.”

Since starting to reopen in September, various school district leaders have said their campuses are safe, citing their robust health and safety plans, multi-million dollar investment in personal protective equipment, or PPE, and the relative lack of cases at schools.

“I have been back at work since May and have felt safe and cared for by our team,” Ocean View High Assistant Principal Jodi Young said. The campus is part of the Huntington Beach Union High School District. “Our site has taken necessary precautions and is following all county and state protocol and guidelines.”

But there is also the challenge of staffing during a pandemic that has to be factored in.

“Significant increase of COVID-19 cases throughout the state, Orange County and our local community has impacted our district and workforce, severely limiting our ability to find appropriate substitute employees who provide critical services,” Newport-Mesa Unified officials said in a statement posted Friday on the district’s website.

Huntington Beach Union recently asked about 180 teachers working remotely because of medical or childcare issues to return to classrooms by Jan. 5 or take a leave. District officials said they want to better connect students with teachers and the district is spending about $80,000 a week on substitutes or attending adults to be in classrooms where students are attending in person.

The school board on Tuesday decided to allow the teachers to remain working remotely through Jan. 29, the end of the first semester, while a solution is reached, said Carolee Ogata, deputy superintendent for human resources.

“It gives everybody six weeks to figure it out and chart a better course for the second semester,” said Shawne Hume, president of the Huntington Beach Union High School District Educators Association.

On Wednesday, Los Alamitos High began a temporary shift back to distance learning that is set to extend through Jan. 13. The district has suspended extracurricular activities through Jan. 19.

“While the number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff at LAHS is still well below the 5% threshold set by the California Department of Public Health for closing a campus to in-person instruction, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of people who must enter quarantine because of close contact with affected individuals,” Los Alamitos Superintendent Andrew Pulver wrote in a letter to the district community.

“Because of the resulting disruption to our programs, we have decided to move LAHS to distance learning,” he said.

The district’s elementary and middle schools will remain in their hybrid format for the rest of the semester and into the next semester, Pulver added.

Fullerton Joint Union High School District will also shift to distance learning for two weeks starting Jan. 4 – its winter break has already begun.

Westminster School District, which instructs students from kindergarten through eighth grade, recently announced it will transition to distance learning when students return from vacation, until Feb. 12.

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By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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