- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2020

THE BIG TALK

An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.

Laguna Beach, California, is as gorgeous as ever, with neighborhoods of posh Spanish villas sloping to the Pacific Ocean under near-permanent blue skies.

But like thousands of other places rich or poor in the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered any semblance of normal schooling. The lone public high school in Laguna Beach isn’t open for in-person classes.

“You know something is wrong here. The kids aren’t in school,” said Liesa Schimmelpfennig, whose son Lucas should be enjoying his senior year. “It’s pretty messed up.”



Ms. Schimmelpfennig and a handful of friends are doing what they can to fight the school lockdown. It’s a lonely and largely unsuccessful campaign that mirrors myriad other fights parents are having with school systems from coast to coast.

Parents and children who believe in-school education is superior to online learning find themselves aligned against elected officials, administrators and powerful teachers unions that insist traditional school isn’t safe.

“It’s a heartbreaking story of very active parents who were enchanted with the system having the wind knocked out of them by it,” Ms. Schimmelpfennig said.

Laguna Beach is a tiny school system, educating roughly 2,600 students from kindergarten to high school.

The public elementary schools opened Oct. 28. But for the rest, it’s Zoom classes only. Many parents who once gave generously to various school support groups have stopped writing checks and started pulling out, said several mothers who spoke with The Washington Times.

Handsomely paid administrators and teachers are fighting parents even though Orange County is a COVID-19 “red” zone in California’s complicated color-tiered system designed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat.

A “red” zone indicates that schools could open, as many have in the adjoining Newport Mesa school system.

One of the biggest opponents of opening the schools is the teachers union, Ms. Schimmelpfennig said.

Indeed, the California Teachers Association released polling on Oct. 14 with very different numbers.

“California voters, including parents, believe that protecting the health of students and staff and their families should be the most important factor in deciding whether, how, and when local public schools reopen for in-school instruction (58% among all voters, 54% among parents),” the CTA said.

The union said avoiding spread of the coronavirus should “supersede other considerations, including the educational and social needs of students and allowing parents to return to work.”

Houston had a similar scenario. Some 100 teachers union members held a car parade protesting the Oct. 19 reopening of schools. In New York City, teachers unions negotiated another seven days off for its members in a September deal to reopen classrooms.

In Laguna Beach, school officials aren’t even trying to open the high school. It is an outlier, too, with the money involved.

Unlike public school systems constantly rattling the cup, the schools in Laguna Beach have glittering chemistry labs and athletic facilities. The superintendent of this four-school system, who is a staunch opponent of reopening, received a compensation package worth more than $325,000 in 2018, according to public data maintained by Transparent California.

In Laguna Beach, some middle school and high school teachers make more than $200,000 a year with benefits, records show.

A school nurse has compensation of $187,000 a year, and a “director of social emotional support” received a package north of $220,000 in 2018.

“The teachers union is playing a large role here,” Ms. Schimmelpfennig said. “They are paid a phenomenal amount of money, and just recently a friend of mine’s child did their chemistry experiment on the kitchen table while the instructor was at Starbucks.”

Ms. Schimmelpfennig noted that several exclusive private schools in the region have been open since September without problems. The local Roman Catholic high school also has been open without major outbreaks of COVID-19.

Rather than the PTA and a local group called School Power, Ms. Schimmelpfennig and others formed “P–-d Off Parents.”

POP held a protest rally recently at Laguna Beach’s civic center, where the Pacific Coast Highway passes Main Beach. The group also backed, somewhat informally, school board candidates who lost in the election.

A pro-lockdown majority remains in control of the school board.

California schools closed in March, completely disrupting the prior school year, too.

With his high school experience ruined, Lucas Martin-Schimmelpfennig issued a cry from the heart on Oct. 1. The local newspaper declined to print his plea as a letter and instead required it to be a political ad.

“You have betrayed the students for whom you claim to work,” he wrote to the Laguna Beach School Board. “You have abandoned the Senior Class of 2021, you have left the pleas of your constituents unanswered, you have turned your back on your community. Shame on you.”

A new trimester system was declared in August, and now administrators insist returning to class would be too disruptive.

Less disruptive is completing a halfhearted, two-hour Zoom session and heading to the beach at 1 p.m. Something is awry in paradise.

“This not how adolescents tick; this is not how kids learn,” Ms. Schimmelpfennig said. “It’s not right.”

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