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Yellow Springs Schools— New academic year to begin online

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In a specially called meeting Saturday morning, July 25, the Yellow Springs school board unanimously approved a plan to restart the 2020–21 academic year online, with instruction to be presented by district teachers.

The decision makes Yellow Springs one of just four districts in the region, and the only district in Greene County, planning as of this week to begin the new year completely online in response to concerns about health risks amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The other area districts that have announced online restarts are Middletown Schools, which straddles Butler and Warren counties; Trotwood-Madison, in Montgomery County; and Tecumseh Local, in Clark County.

The Yellow Springs online plan, which extends through the first quarter of the school year, pulls back from the district’s initial intention, announced July 1, to physically return most students to the classroom full time when the new year begins Aug. 27.

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“So much has changed with the health conditions in Ohio and the country,” Superintendent Terri Holden told the board Saturday in recommending the action. The special meeting, which was conducted through an online conference platform, was streamed live on YouTube.

Holden had notified district families on July 13 that a full-time return to the classroom no longer seemed appropriate, asking them to share their preference for one of three possible pathways: adopting a hybrid approach that combines in-person and online instruction, going fully online through a third-party service or going online with local teachers. The deadline for responding was 5 p.m. Friday, July 24, following a virtual town hall meeting Monday, July 20, in which the superintendent addressed questions about the possible plans.

Decision rationale

On Saturday, Holden said responses to that query, as well as the number of teachers and staff who are most at risk for contracting the disease or are responsible for the care of a medically vulnerable person, contributed to her recommendation for 100% online instruction for now.

According to district records, 411 responses came in from the 460-some families whose children attend Yellow Springs Schools. Of those, 213, or 51.8%, chose the option to go fully online with local teachers; 182, or 44.3%, chose the hybrid plan; and 16, or 3.9%, chose the third-party online option.

The superintendent said she also sought feedback from staff members about whether they, or someone they are responsible for, are among those identified by CDC guidelines as being most vulnerable to COVID. Without identifying the number of respondents, she said that 16% of teachers and 22% of instructional support staff at Mills Lawn Elementary, answered affirmatively, while 26% of teachers and 30% of instructional support staff at the middle and high school campus indicated vulnerability as well.

She also reported that slightly more than 40% of district staff are 50 years of age or older.

“We’re blessed with a veteran staff,” she said. “But you don’t get a veteran staff without aging.”

Holden said that having at-risk staff members potentially unable to work would affect the district’s ability to provide in-person instruction, especially in implementing safety protocols such as smaller groupings of students and increased physical distancing, which would already strain staffing levels.

In a letter sent to the superintendent and board July 14, the Yellow Springs Education Association, or YSEA, the local teachers union, expressed the stance of its 51 members that a return to the classroom was not safe at this time, and they called for a “100% virtual” approach for the new academic year. The union that represents other school staff also supported the letter.

During a joint conference call interview last week, YSEA Co-presidents Kate Lohmeyer and Sarah Amin reiterated employees’ stance and said they believed instruction should remain online until “there is more robust testing and [case] numbers decline.”

Following Saturday’s board decision, Lohmeyer responded in an email to an inquiry this week from the News about the union’s reaction.

“YSEA is appreciative of the administration and board’s consideration of educator and student safety,” she wrote, going on to express teachers’ desire “to openly communicate” as well as “connect and collaborate” with the administration and school community in developing an effective online model.

“YSEA remains committed to reflection, refinement and improvement of our educational experiences in a remote learning atmosphere,” Lohmeyer wrote, concluding, “Our current global crisis demands ‘all hands on deck.’ We are eager and excited to be an integral part of the solution.”

While Holden has repeatedly said that the health and safety of students and staff is her primary concern, she told the board Saturday that she also remains committed to getting students back into the classroom full time as soon as possible. Toward that end, district leaders will decide in October how to proceed after the first quarter ends Oct. 30, though assessment will be ongoing, Holden said.

The plan

The seven-page “Return to School Plan,” as well as a PowerPoint summary presented to the board Saturday and titled “Bulldog Blueprint,” are both posted on the district’s website:

Highlights include sections on curriculum, academic support, technology, student assessment, student and teacher accountability, food service and athletics.

The plan also includes implementation of a component titled Safe Center for Online Learning, or SCOL, where the district will provide a supervised in-person environment for small groups of students (about eight) whose families request it, with priority given to the children of essential health-care workers, the children of parents who cannot work from home, children from single-parent households whose parent must work and the district’s youngest students. Holden anticipates being able to accommodate 20% of the student population, about 150 children, with current staffing. She also said that volunteers might play a role and noted that members of the community had already been contacting her to ask how they might help the schools this fall.

In addition, students with special needs who have an Individual Educational Plan, or IEP, will receive one-on-one tutoring and support as detailed on their plan, with that support being provided online, in-person or a combination of the two.

In order to meet the state’s minimum number of instructional hours, elementary students must attend for six hours, including two 15-minute “recess” breaks, but excluding lunch, to count as a full school day; and middle and high school students are required to attend for six and a half hours, excluding a lunch break. Instruction will be both synchronous — as led by a teacher — and asynchronous — individual or group work.

Calling the situation “unbelievably complex,” school board President Steve Conn said that there is “no good answer” for local students amidst the ongoing pandemic, but the new plan is best for now.

At the same time, he expressed concern about whether teachers are prepared to take on the load of teaching fully online, pointing to complaints from the community about the online offerings this past spring, following the state’s closing of schools in March.

Holden assured Conn that instruction this fall will be different from the curriculum employed in the spring, and that teachers, if given the support and resources they need, are up to the task. But she’ll also be looking for more teacher accountability, including their schedules for student contact and engagement, Holden said.

She also will be requiring all teachers to work from their classrooms, rather than their homes, as they did in the spring. She said being in the school building will help teachers with planning for the eventual physical return, will give them the support of staff and easy access to materials and provide opportunities for collaboration with other teachers.

“The burden is on us, on us as a team, not on individual teachers,” she said.

Board Vice-president Aïda Merhemic said she supported the requirement, adding that having teachers give online instruction from their classrooms will also provide a visual and psychological connection and sense of place for students.

In a separate comment, near the close of the meeting, Merhemic asked the superintendent if she had concerns about families leaving the district.

Holden responded that what she would tell families is, “If you trusted us before this, trust us now. Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement, but we have the right stuff to do it. … I would hope folks stay with us.”

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