Laguna Beach USD teachers ask district to suspend in-person learning

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Top of the World Elementary students wait to have their body temperatures read on Oct. 5. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The president of the Laguna Beach teachers’ union on Thursday signed a letter recommending Orange County schools return exclusively to distance learning in light of the COVID-19 surge.

Sara Hopper, president of the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association, joined the heads of 18 local chapters of the California Teachers Association in inking the letter addressed to Orange county school superintendents and board members.

“Currently, the school districts in our county follow different policies and rely on voluntary virus reporting,” the letter states. “Without consistently applied testing and tracing, our schools risk spreading infection throughout the county. No district is completely independent of the others; we have members and families working, living, and learning in different cities.”

The letter represents a major reversal of Laguna Beach teachers’ recommendation earlier this fall that students return to classrooms at Top of the World and El Morro schools. Both campuses have held in-person classes since Oct. 5 under a waiver obtained from state and county health officials. Since then, Southern California has experienced a wave of COVID-19 cases unmatched by any other time this year.

Laguna Beach school administrators signaled late Thursday that there is no immediate plan to close the elementary schools. Under county health protocols, a closure would be necessary if 5% of the student and staff at one school site test positive for COVID-19 within the last 14 days or if the Orange County Health Care Agency mandates school closures.

“We agree with the association that our number one priority is the safety of our students, colleagues, and communities,” Deputy Supt. Leisa Winston wrote in an email. “The District strictly adheres to [state health officials’] guidance and is not experiencing an outbreak within the elementary schools that would precipitate a closure.”

Orange County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said at a press conference Thursday that he will not recommend closing schools at this time.

Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School are still teaching students through a distance learning model. All Laguna Beach students are scheduled to start winter break on Dec. 18 and remain home until Jan. 5.

Hospitalizations in California due to confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 have risen more than 81% in the last two weeks, and ICU hospitalizations have increased 57.1%, according to Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California’s Health and Human Services Agency.

“By shifting instruction to distance learning, we can help flatten the curve before the rate of infection spikes beyond the capacity of hospitals and healthcare providers,” the letter states.

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.

“Distance learning, while necessary, has been exhausting and difficult for both students and teachers,” the teacher union leaders said. “There’s nothing educators want more than to teach and interact with their students in person. But now is not that time.”

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