Laguna Beach HS, Thurston Middle reopening nixed amid COVID-19 case spike

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Laguna Beach High School. File Photo

The Laguna Beach Unified School District canceled the Nov. 23 start date for resuming in-person instruction at Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School, following Orange County’s return to the state’s most-restrictive tier for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

At the earliest, Laguna Beach’s secondary schools could reopen in January, if Orange County is able to move out of the purple tier in the next few weeks, Supt. Jason Viloria said in a statement to parents on Monday. Until then, middle and high school students will continue with distance learning.

“We are extremely disappointed that we will not be allowed to reopen our secondary schools on Nov. 23 as planned,” Board president Peggy Wolff wrote in a prepared statement. “Our district leaders were prepared with all protocols in place, and cohorts of students. It is frustrating that the State and OC Health rules were changed suddenly as we moved into the purple tier. At this point, it is up to all citizens of Orange County to follow protocols in order to lower our transmission rates so we move back into a safe tier and our secondary schools can reopen.”

The California Department of Public Health’s guidance this week allows schools that already conduct in-person instruction to remain open. In light of this, El Morro and Top of the World elementary schools may remain open for in-person learning. Earlier this fall, Laguna Beach Unified’s Board of Education decided not to let middle and high school students return to classrooms in the middle of the trimester. Instead, board members followed a recommendation from the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association to wait until the start of the second trimester to avoid further disruption to students’ learning in the event of an outbreak at a campus.

For parents exasperated over having their students learning from home since March, the news that secondary schools will stay closed until early 2021 is devastating. However, a majority of Laguna Beach voters decided to reelect board member Jan Vickers and elect Kelly Osborne, who has been supportive of administrators’ strategy during the pandemic, signaling that there is strong community support for the status quo.

Previous guidance received by district administrators indicated that we could reopen middle and high schools even if Orange County moved into the purple tier on Nov. 17, as the state tier system is adjusted on Tuesdays and the purple tier restrictions would not have been in effect until late next week.

“We were also operating under the guidance that since we had reopened classes and a learning center for students with disabilities and English Learners, we would be permitted to continue our planned reopening,” Viloria said. “However, the guidance has been updated to indicate that even though we have opened selected pro-grams, we cannot commence in-per-son instruction for all grade levels.”

While tier assignments were evaluated once per week, they may now occur any day of the week and may occur more than once a week when the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) determines that the most recent reliable data indicate that immediate action is needed to address COVID-19 transmission in a county. To shift from the most-restrictive purple tier to the red tier, Orange County needs to demonstrate metrics consistent with red tier criteria that show the number of COVID-19 cases flattening for three weeks.

State health officials have issued guidance that schools can reopen for in-person instruction once their county has been in the red tier for two weeks. Tiers are effective the day after assignment.

Laguna Beach parent Sheri Morgan said the bigger risk to students is their social and emotional health, adding that she has received many calls from fellow parents indicating this concern.

“The newest board member and re-elected incumbent both have stated that the plan is fine, parents and candidates expressing their frustration and passion are just ‘a small angry bunch that will never be happy’ and we are returning Nov. 23 so there is no reason to address opening sooner,” Morgan wrote in an email. “However, it has been clear that a second wave would come and if we were open prior to this week, we would be able to stay open.”

Morgan added that it’s the district’s job to provide a safe working environment to the teachers, staff and students but the trimester system not being modeled elsewhere has paralyzed the administration from being able to truly act. Morgan ran for school board this fall and came in fourth place in the election for two board seats.

James Azadian said his Laguna Beach High sophomore and seventh-grader were deeply disappointed.

“They were really looking forward to being back on their respective campuses and once again physically interacting with their peers and outstanding teachers,” Azadian wrote in an email. “Both of my sons are quite social, so the distance learning experiment has been trying on them.”

He encouraged parents to remain positive and resilient for their students.

“They model our own attitudes and reactions,” Azadian said. “I don’t think it is right for parents to malign board members, teachers, and administrators. Such actions will only teach our children that it is okay to disrespect their teachers and those figures in a position of authority.”

Although disappointed, Laguna Beach High parent Cinnamon Mundy was not shocked by the last minute decision of secondary schools being denied their reopening only days before Nov. 23.

“We knew, as well as our superintendent, that this was a high probability for this fall and 6-12 grade kids would miss out on the opportunity to return while K-5 enjoys going to school every week as well as every high school around us,” Mundy wrote in an email. “Sadly, many secondary teachers pushed back to reopen and they won.”

In her opinion, parents and students who elected the hybrid model seem to continually be cheated.

“So going forward, I hope our educational leaders will acknowledge this mistake and step up to create exciting, outside of the box ways for kids to engage in physically distanced, safe events,” Mundy wrote. “We have the outdoors and weather on our side. It does take a village, and in this case, all hands need to be on deck.”

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