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Yellow Springs Schools— Reopening plan in flux

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This is the second article about the reopening of Yellow Springs Schools. Last week’s article looked at the district’s plan at that time, and this week explores community thoughts.

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to spread in our community and region, and the 2020–21 school year scheduled to begin in a mere six weeks, uncertainty and worry seem to be the overwhelming feelings among many families considering educational choices for their children.

“Right now, there is so much unknown and changing. It’s very difficult to gauge levels of risk,” a parent of three local students wrote in an anonymous survey conducted by the school district at the beginning of summer break.

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Similar sentiments were shared by others in the survey and have continued to be expressed through the summer on social media and in recent interviews with local parents.

The school district’s plan continues to evolve as well.

On July 1, Superintendent Terri Holden notified families that the district intended to offer two options when school opens Aug. 27 — typical full-day in-person classes or all-online instruction likely provided by a contracted service. The plan did not include a blended option, which would combine in-class and online lessons. A return to brick and mortar classrooms also reflected Gov. Mike DeWine’s expectations that schools reopen this fall. At the most recent regular school board meeting last week, Holden reiterated the district’s intention to resume regular classes, but added the plan was relevant, “at 7:16 p.m. Thursday, July 9,” the time and date she was speaking.

“I would be lying if I say I’m confident about what’s going to happen,” Holden said.

Then, on Monday, July 13, the superintendent sent out a new letter and survey to families offering a revised set of options for the upcoming academic year.

“In the two weeks that have transpired [since the July 1 letter to families], the landscape both nationally and in Ohio has changed,” Holden wrote. “Cases of COVID-19 are increasing. To that end, we will be changing our approach in the fall.”

A full-time return has been taken off the table and replaced with a hybrid option combining in-person with online instruction. The district is considering one of two scenarios. The first allows families to decide between the proposed hybrid model and online instruction provided through a contracted service. The second scenario is a fully online experience for all students led by Yellow Springs teachers delivering the curriculum.

In the meantime, the Yellow Springs Education Association, the local teachers union, sent a letter to the superintendent and school board late Tuesday expressing teachers’ strong feeling against a return to in-person classes this fall.

“The Yellow Springs Education Association stands united in the belief that a 100% virtual option for our community is the only solution to begin the school year,” the letter states. “The variables and risks that present themselves in our current climate indicate that it is not the time to return to in-person education experiences with our students.”

The district’s suggested hybrid plan would divide students into two groups, A or B, with one group attending in-person classes on Mondays and Thursdays and the other attending Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be a day for deep cleaning, according to Holden’s letter. Under this plan, middle school students will be housed in the Antioch University Midwest building, allowing for more physical distancing at that facility and the middle/high school campus.

Monday’s survey letter asks families to select their preferred option — hybrid, online service or online with local teachers. The deadline for responses, originally set for Monday, July 20, has been extended to Friday, July 24, following a newly scheduled virtual town hall meeting with the superintendent from 6 to 7 p.m. July 20.

Based on the survey results, the district will choose between the two basic scenarios: 1) families choose between a hybrid model and a contracted online service or 2) all students study online with Yellow Springs teachers.

First survey

In announcing earlier this month the district’s then intention of returning students to class full time with the start of the new school year, Holden wrote that the decision was based in large part on results of a survey sent out to families at the end of the 2019–20 school year.

That survey, which received 247 responses between May 27 and June 10, asked families about their experiences with the online content presented this spring, their needs should online instruction continue in the fall, their concerns about in-person classes and the learning option they anticipated choosing for their children. The options presented at that time were: returning to the classroom with the possibility of blended (part in-person, part online) instruction, staying online until the environment feels safer, or remaining online until a vaccine is available. “Unsure at this time” was a fourth choice.

At that time, just over half of the respondents, 130 (52.6%) indicated they planned to send their children to school for in-person and blended instruction, while 71 (28.7%) said they were unsure of their plans. The rest planned to continue online, at least for now.

Concerns about the virus

Uncertainty and concern dominated the survey comments, even among those who said they planned to send their children back to school this fall.

“[There are] so many unknowns about COVID transmission at this time, wrote the parent of a high schooler, who indicated their plan for the student’s return nonetheless.

The parent of two Mills Lawn students who chose “unsure” about their plans also wrote about the unknowns.

“The lack of a vaccine or proven treatment makes it difficult to put our kids at risk,” they said.

Another parent, who anticipated pursuing online instruction for their three children for now, detailed similar feelings.

“I am concerned about students and teachers being in close proximity to each other and sharing germs potentially dangerous to their health. I am concerned for the teachers. … I am concerned for the youngest students given their nature to interact closely with others and inability to follow rules as well as most adults. I am concerned that in spite of our best efforts, in-person schooling will lead to the increased spread of coronavirus in our community and long-term negative health effects or even loss of life for community members.”

And another parent of two Mills Lawn students who indicated uncertainty about their eventual plans noted their doubt in children’s ability to comply with necessary precautions.

“I have full faith that THE SCHOOL will take all possible precautions, but I’m not confident in how well children will be able to follow them,” they wrote.

Conversely, another parent of three wrote that they had no qualms about sending their children back to school, but on the condition that they be allowed to go without masks and their physical activity not be restricted.

“I have absolutely no concerns whatsoever when it comes to health and safety,” the parent wrote. “My concerns come from what I feel to be drastic and unnecessary measures taken to avoid a virus and germs that we are not afraid of. I will not allow my children to attend a school where masks are mandatory and extracurriculars/playground time are prohibited. I do not believe at all that would be in the best interest of our children.”

In recent phone interviews with different parents, a common theme was anxiousness to know more details about what to expect while trying to be patient until the details are available.

“I’m withholding judgment,” Caryn Diamond, the mother of three said. “I know that if things are like they are right now, I would feel very nervous sending my kids to school.”

Diamond noted that her younger son, Noah, a rising seventh grader, has asthma, and having a cold can turn to pneumonia. She wants to ensure her kids stay healthy, but she worries that the U.S. doesn’t have enough available resources.

She pointed out that other countries battling the disease have taken such actions as disinfecting children’s backpacks and shoes each time they come to school. “We don’t even have enough tests,” she said.

Holly Underwood, whose son, Zach, also is going into seventh grade, said she is grateful that her son has no underlying health issues, but she is still hesitant about sending him back to school.

“Right now, today, I wouldn’t send him on Monday,” she said. “But in six weeks? … It’s a moving target.”

Underwood said she and her husband, Tom, would feel better if they had a chance to see classroom arrangements and safety precautions first-hand before the doors officially opened.

“Even if we could just peer through a window, that would help my comfort level,” she said.

Lori Kuhn said her 16-year-old daughter — the last of her three children in the Yellow Springs Schools — has a variety of concerns. Among them are whether other students will follow prescribed safety precautions, and how an already overcrowded lunchroom will function. At the same time, she’s “not crazy about the idea of wearing a mask for seven hours a day.”

“We’re trying to keep an open mind, recognizing that this continues to be a highly dynamic situation and probably will be for quite a few more months and maybe even another year,” Kuhn said.

For Erin George, the mother of a rising first grader, her concerns are more about her son not being able to return to school.

Online instruction didn’t compare to the in-person learning he received in Linnea Denman’s kindergarten class, George said. She said he had a palpable bond with his teacher and thrived on the social relationships in school.

“When COVID broke out, it was really distressing for him not to be in school,” she said.

She noted that he was now “pretty well versed” in wearing a mask, and she has “faith that our educators will talk to the children in ways that are meaningful to them to understand the rules and why they’re important.”

George also said that she and her husband were able to manage having their son home from school this spring while they both worked full time, but that isn’t sustainable. They don’t have continuing viable childcare options, she said.

She said she is grateful that the district is trying to take into account the different circumstances affecting families.

A point of note in the surveys is that the handful of respondents who said they did not have internet access at home all indicated they planned to send their children to school in the fall, though they did not say whether the absence of internet was the reason for their decision.

Online learning

Having an adequate educational model in place is also among the concerns of parents. Online instruction figures heavily in the newest learning options now being presented by the district. And both survey results, representing more than half of the 460-some families in the district, and parent interviews revealed a strong feeling that the district needs to improve on the content offered this spring.

The survey offered three assessment choices: “Great, given the situation!”; “OK, but I expect future distance learning opportunities to be better”; and “I was not a fan and think it can be better.” About 44% of respondents (109) chose “Great, given the situation!” But the majority wanted better, with about 40% (97) choosing “OK, but…” and about 17% (41) selecting “not a fan.”

Diamond said her children were able to make it work because they “are all older and really self-motivated.”

But it wasn’t satisfying, she added.

“They did not enjoy it like they do being at school with their teacher and their friends,” she said. “It wasn’t enough work. It was too easy. They weren’t as challenged.”

“I hate to criticize anything,” she continued. “I think the teachers and the administrators did an amazing job,” given the circumstances. But she hopes for better with the new school year, along with avenues for the performing arts, which she said are of high importance to her whole family.

Underwood said Zach “did OK with the online instruction,” but she felt he missed out on the deeper engagement that comes with being present in school.

Most survey respondents who expressed satisfaction with the online curriculum didn’t include comments about their experience, while those who were unhappy with the instruction offered a variety of responses.

“There was nothing positive about the remote learning experience,” wrote one parent. “I appreciate the thought and consideration that went into it, but both parents in my child’s life have demanding careers. As soon as my child was no longer in the classroom, he did not care about school. Literally, my six-year-old said he would rather fail first grade than do those assignments.”

While one respondent said that talking to parents in other districts led her to appreciate what Yellow Springs had to offer, two said they felt the local plan came up short in comparison to others.

“I appreciate Mills Lawn’s approach to make distance learning unstressful,” wrote one, “but my daughter received zero instruction. Most area schools posted daily video instruction, followed by individual practice, and available virtual office hours where students could request help or get clarification. None of this was offered. … There was no rigor and no attempt to bring the curriculum to an online format. I was highly disappointed by this.”

The parent of a high school student also wanted more rigor.

“I was very disappointed by the assignments presented to my 10th grader,” they wrote. “I understand that moving to an online format for learning was not going to be an easy task, but the work he was assigned was not academic at all.”

Difficulty working with the software, especially for younger children, was another challenge.

A parent of three students at Mills Lawn wrote, “My second grader could not navigate Google Classroom well at all and needed a lot of parental help, but I think he could have been independent on Seesaw [the platform used by kindergarteners]. … Please, please consider using it for all early elementary classes!”

Parents also wrote that more interaction with teachers would have helped in overseeing or monitoring their children’s assignments.

“It was sometimes difficult for me as a parent to know what the assignments were and when they were due,” one respondent wrote about their middle schooler’s work. “My student seemed to understand this but did not communicate it clearly to me. It would be helpful to know more about where to look for assignments from each teacher.”

A number of respondents commented unfavorably on the discontinuation of certain classes during the spring quarter, including chemistry, physics and foreign languages.

But among the criticisms was also a listing of benefits, besides the health safety of being home. Several respondents wrote that they appreciated the opportunity to spend more time together as a family. Others said their children responded positively to having more flexible schedules, including the ability to sleep later. Some students found value in becoming more independent in their learning and being able to pursue more personal interests.

Parent Lori Kuhn wonders whether this time of re-envisioning what school will look like this fall might not open up the chance to look at the bigger picture of education’s future.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to reimagine what public education can be like,” she said.

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