Laguna Beach High School, Thurston Middle Remain Closed Until O.C. Moves into Red Tier

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Laguna Beach High School

Despite concern from many secondary school parents that the continued closure of schools is causing social isolation and other problems, school administrators said it’s still unclear when students can return to Thurston Middle School and Laguna Beach High School.

Secondary students will continue with distance learning until Orange County moves from the purple tier to the red tier, Supt. Jason Viloria said on Jan. 28.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District canceled a November start date for resuming in-person instruction at the middle and high schools following the County’s return to the purple tier, the state’s most-restrictive tier for preventing the spread of COVID-19. To shift to the red tier, Orange County needs to report metrics that show the number of COVID-19 cases flattening for five days (reduced from two weeks).

While countywide COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are starting to decline, until given permission from the state, it’s “out of the board’s hands,” board member James Kelly said at the Jan. 28 board meeting.

“My picture seems to be posted on telephone poles because I can’t go anywhere without being asked about this,” he said. “I’ve tried to explain that we have to get into the red (tier) before the county and state give us permission to open schools. I’ve been spending an awful lot of time explaining that I’m a big supporter of reopening, as long as we can do it safely and the right way.”

The school board has prioritized hiring a full-time nurse at the high school and encouraging more families to opt-in for voluntary COVID-19 testing of students.

Also of concern was the mental health of students who have been at home since last spring, an issue being weighed by superintendents across the country who are seeing the academic and psychological ramifications of schools being closed.

“Our schools need to be open because our students’ mental health matters,” said Laguna Beach parent Sheri Morgan, who has children at the middle and high school. “Their socialization matters. The quality of their education matters. There is a study showing that the suicide rate in teens is alarming. The fact that the board is saying their hands are tied and there is nothing they can do is not true.”

Morgan ran for school board this fall and came in fourth place in the election for two board seats.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 911 calls related to mental health in over 40 states have increased in all age groups and that youth emergency room visits for mental health issues has risen during the pandemic.

A parent who called in expressed concern that the district doesn’t have enough counselors available to secondary school students showing symptoms of mental illness to COVID-19. This should be the district’s top priority, she said, adding she’s heard about many boys seeing counselors about suicidal thoughts over the Winter break.

Board clerk Kelly Osborne said that one of the actions being taken by the district is the recent signing of the pledge for Stigma Free OC, a county-wide movement that aims to clear the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction. The school has also been sending out twice-monthly podcasts discussing a variety of topics to help support students’ social-emotional needs.

Morgan argued this is not the answer.

Sending out a video of tips is a joke,” she said.

In the 2020-21 school year through Feb. 2, counseling staff have had over 4,000 counseling contacts, including more than 1,100 student contacts, 1,100 parent consultations, 250 ongoing school-based mental-health sessions, and 70 consultations with local providers, a district spokesperson said.

Thurston Middle School parent Candice Dartez said her daughter wants to have school spirit but doesn’t as she closes in on eighth-grade graduation.

“The kids have become apathetic,” Dartez wrote in an email. “They are numb to school. This has gone on too long.”

Dartez also worries her daughter is falling behind educationally because she hasn’t done a math equation since last March.

“They miss seeing their teachers’ faces and do not understand why they can go shopping, eat out, play club sports but not step foot in a classroom,” she added.

Another issue slowing reopening has been the concern teachers unions have expressed about getting the virus from students. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Safe Schools For All Plan,” announced Dec. 30, addresses some of the concerns teachers have voiced, providing some $450 per student for cleaning, masks and ventilation, as well as regular COVID testing for students and staff.

Orange County has also struggled to obtain more vaccine doses, Viloria said.

“There are not enough to go around for those who want it,” he said. “We are hopeful we will get to Group 1B with vaccines, a mixed group that includes educators … There is no timetable for vaccines, they mentioned February, which is here now, so hopefully by the middle of the month.”

Viloria said that he shared in the frustration with the Department of Public Health shifting guidelines.

“The OC COVID website shows the current tier status, and it shows the precipitous drops in case counts, which gets us closer to being able to reopen,” he said. “The case rate is moving in a positive direction. Our hope is it will continue [and we will reopen] sooner rather than later.”

El Morro and Top of the World elementary schools continue to host modified in-person classes under a state waiver approved last year. Through smaller class sizes and a slate of preventative measures, the school community has held down COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

Eight positive cases were reported across the district, including at in-person special education high school classes, in the last 14 days, the school district reported Tuesday. In total, 42 students and employees are isolating after they were potentially exposed. The two elementary schools have 870 students enrolled between them.

Daniel Langhorne contributed reporting to this story.

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