‘We feel like we’re guinea pigs for the entire state:’ Parents, teachers protest school reopenings in O.C.

Local news

With some Orange County schools on track to open for in-person learning next week, a group of parents and teachers gathered Sunday to call on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to delay reopening classrooms until more coronavirus safety measures are implemented.

“The district plans to re-open for instruction on September 29 over the objection of teachers, school staff, and parents who have serious safety concerns that continue to go unaddressed by the district,” reads a statement from the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, which organized Sunday’s event.

The protesters gathered in Costa Mesa and participated in a car caravan that ended at Costa Mesa High School. The words “Too soon,” “More safety & planning needed” and “Open when safe only” were scrawled on the cars’ windows.

The school district will have elementary school students and those with special needs start in-person learning first on Sept. 29, followed by middle school students on Oct. 1 and high schoolers on Oct. 12, in order to stagger the reopening.

The board approved a plan for schools in the district to open with a hybrid model, having students learn in a combination of in-person and remote instruction, so not all the students are on campuses at once.

District officials said schools will adhere to coronavirus safety guidelines issued by the state health department, including reducing capacity, facilitating social distancing, requiring face masks and increasing cleanings. 

Parents at Sunday’s protest said the district’s plan is too hasty and unclear, and that there’s hasn’t been enough communication.

“We feel like we’re guinea pigs for the entire state,” parent Sarah Halverson-Cano said. “Why not wait a little bit longer, see what happens?”

The teacher’s union pointed to a virus outbreak at a child care center in Sonoma County as an example of why communities should be concerned. In that coronavirus cluster, a child had spread the virus to 15 other students, 11 family members and three staff members, forcing the county to shut down the facility.

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley says she understands the teachers’ concerns.

“There’s a lot of families that want their kids to return to school, they feel like there’s a learning gap that’s developing,” Foley said. “I think elementary school students, it’s kind of hard to learn on Zoom all day. So, I understand those concerns. I think that what some people want is to wait for us to get down to that yellow tier.”

Orange County moved into the red tier — a less-restrictive reopening phase in the state’s color-coded system — on Sept. 8, kickstarting a 14-day countdown for schools to reopen for in-person instruction.

All school districts can open for in-person learning starting Sept. 22, if they choose.

The earliest Orange County can be moved to the third reopening phase, the orange tier, is Sept. 29 — but only after it reaches 1 to 3.9 new daily cases per 1,000 and a testing positivity rate of 2 to 4.9% for two straight weeks, according to state officials.

Nearby Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties are still in the purple tier, the most restrictive of the stages, and can’t yet allow schools to reopen for in-person learning, with the exception of elementary schools that are granted a waiver.

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