Laguna Beach USD plans to reopen secondary schools on March 17

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An areal view of the Laguna Beach High School track. Photo by Cyrus Polk – Sparkle Films.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District is planning to reopen its secondary school campuses for in-person classes on March 17, pending official notice that Orange County has entered the state’s Red Tier for managing COVID-19, according to a statement released Wednesday.

A St. Patrick’s Day reopening means that Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School will have been closed to students for just over a year because of the pandemic.

“Orange County continues to get closer to the red tier county risk level for COVID-19, which will allow us to reopen our secondary schools,” Supt. Jason Viloria said in a statement to parents late Wednesday.

As of Feb. 23, Orange County has met the required criteria for two of the three benchmarks for entering the Red Tier: Test Positivity Rate and Health Equity Quartile Positivity Rate. State officials require counties to hit a third metric, Adjusted Daily Case Rate, before progressing to the next tier.

Based on reported data, school district officials project Orange County will meet the California Department of Public Health criteria to enter the Red Tier on March 2 and will likely meet the required three metrics for two consecutive weeks. After this holding period, Laguna Beach secondary schools are slated to reopen classrooms, according to the statement.

The announcement comes as a relief to students who miss seeing theirREOPfriends and teachers in-person after nearly a year of Zoom meetings.

Candice Dartez, the parent of a high school senior and eighth-grader, said the campus reopening is a little bitter-sweet because it arrives later than anyone expected and without much celebration. She still expects student drop-off on March 17 will be emotional for many families.

“I know when that day comes I’ll be crying,” she said.

Ultimately, it’s great the students are going back to school, Dartez said.

“This is a stepping stone to get our kids back to some kind of normalcy,” she said. “It’s not as glorious as I thought it would be.”

Liesa Schimmelpfennig said her son has grown increasingly disinterested with his final year at Laguna Beach High School.

“He’s done with Zoom. He can’t stand it,” she said.

Even though he’s completed his course work to graduate, Schimmelpfennig plans to force her son to return to campus.

“I told him, ‘it would be good closure for you to reengage with your teachers and peers. After a week, you’ll be grateful that you did,’” she said.

School board president Carol Normandin thanked families for following public health measures.

“We are elated that school site teams are ready and waiting with anticipation for their students’ return,” she wrote in an email. “The board is also empathetic to the sacrifices that have been made in this critical time and appreciate that our entire community will continue to benefit from these efforts as long as it is needed – for our kids and all of our Laguna Family.”

Sara Hopper, president of the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association, wrote in a text message that teachers and other credentialed staffers have endorsed the plan to restart in-person instruction.

“Given all the safety measures  the district has in place we support moving to in-person instruction at the secondary level and are looking forward to seeing our students in our classroom!” Hopper wrote.

The Board of Education backed a teacher’s union recommendation last fall to delay reopening the secondary schools until after the first trimester’s close. At that time,  the union argued a COVID-19 on campuses would further disrupt student learning.

Laguna Beach school officials have faced mounting pressure, particularly from many parents of secondary school students, to restart in-person classes at all of its school sites. Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled out an order in November that blocked Laguna Beach middle and high schoolers from returning to campuses as planned on Nov. 23.

This story is developing and will be updated as necessary.

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