YS Schools restart— District assesses risks
- Published: August 13, 2020
Early last week, Yellow Springs Schools was one of just four districts in the area to have announced plans for beginning the new academic year with all students receiving online instruction. By week’s end, however, an increasing number of nearby districts were reversing their previously stated plans to return to the classroom in favor of an all-online model as well.
Yellow Springs’ decision also represented a new direction for the district, which initially on July 1 had announced the administration’s intention to start the year with full, five-days-a-week, in-person instruction; and then on July 13 pulled back from that plan in favor of a partial return that would combine in-person and online learning.
“It’s nobody’s preference,” Superintendent Terri Holden said earlier this week about starting the year online. “We want to be back in the classroom.”
This story looks at some of the risks of both in-person and online instruction that local educators are weighing in planning for the new academic year.
When Gov. Mike DeWine closed schools statewide in mid-March, Holden supported the action as a temporary response to an immediate health crisis. And as the number of cases and virus-related deaths began to go down, she was optimistic about getting back into the classroom this fall.
“Children need to be in school,” she said earlier this summer.
She did not expect that the crisis would be ongoing, with case numbers again rising as the new school year was ready to began, nor does she believe it was unavoidable.
“I think about that 24-hour period when the governor mandated mask-wearing for all, and then pulled it back,” she said. “I wonder what our landscape in Ohio might have looked like if we had” taken that action then.
Given current levels of the disease regionally and across the state, Holden said she isn’t comfortable about the safety of returning to in-person classroom instruction.
“Maybe our approach is too cautionary, but I think it was the right thing,” she said.
She pointed to a children’s summer camp in Georgia that was in the national news recently after 600 campers, about half, tested positive for COVID-19.
“The camp did just about everything they were supposed to do,” in terms of safety precautions, Holden said. What they didn’t do was require masks for the children or prohibit singing, she said.
For Holden, the camp outbreak is a cautionary tale when so much is still unknown about the disease’s spread, particularly among children.
A doctor’s perspective
Dr. Sherman Alter, chief of the infectious diseases division at Dayton Children’s Hospital, separately pointed to the Georgia camp as illustrative of potential threats that schools need to consider in deciding when and how to reopen.
In a phone interview this week, he said that the accepted medical thinking had been that children, especially younger kids, were less likely to transmit the disease to other children. The Georgia camp outbreak, which affected children 6–10 years old, proved that idea incorrect.
“There it definitely was transmitted from child to child,” Alter said.
The good news is that while much is still unknown about the disease in children, “we know that when kids contract [the novel coronavirus], it’s generally a mild illness,” the doctor said. Most infected children are treatable at home. And the related, more serious multi-system inflammatory syndrome is still rare, he said, adding that Dayton Children’s has treated seven such cases.
Also, the percentage of children contracting COVID has stayed steady at 1–2% of all cases in the U.S., Alter said. Of the children being tested, just 3-5% test positive for the disease, with percentages for older youth trending a little higher, he added.
But while the lower rates of infection have been documented, the contributing factors remain unclear. Some observers have suggested that the closing of schools in the spring effectively isolated many children from contracting the disease, and that returning to the classroom could see cases rise.
Dr. Alter acknowledged the possibility.
“We learn everyday something new,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s new.”
Another unknown is the rate of transmission by infected children who are asymptomatic.
“For me that is a critical number,” he said.
A recent study published online and reported in the New York Times found that the virus present in the upper respiratory systems of infected children was at levels comparable to infected adults. The findings suggest children could transmit the disease at higher rates than previously thought.
Alter said he doesn’t envy school officials making plans for the new academic year. The unknowns about the disease still loom large. But one thing holds true, he said.
“If we practice what we’re supposed to be doing, the infection rate will be low.”
Assessing local risks
Assessing the health risks is difficult, Superintendent Holden said.
“I’m an educator, not a public health official,” she said.
The online restart of school is currently approved through the first quarter, which ends Oct. 31. Administrators will decide mid-October whether to continue online or come back in person.
Holden said that case numbers need to go down before she feels it’s safe to return.
“I need to see, really, that we’re on the right trajectory in Ohio as well as the country,” she said.
“If the whole state were yellow …,” she speculated, referring to the governor’s risk-related color designations for Ohio counties, with yellow representing the least risk, followed by orange, red and purple. As of last Thursday, 23 of Ohio’s 88 counties had a yellow designation.
While Greene County has fluctuated between yellow and orange, “everybody around us is red or orange,” Holden said. “And we have a lot of people coming in and out,” including teachers and students who live out of the district, she added.
She noted that Montgomery and Hamilton counties have had especially high case numbers in recent weeks.
Relatedly, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, in partnership with the New York Times, recently put together a map of all U.S. counties and the estimated number of infected people expected to show up to school in each, depending on the population of the learning settings.
According to the New York Times story published July 30, “based on current infection rates, more than 80% of Americans live in a county where at least one infected person would be expected to show up to a school of 500 students and staff in the first week, if school started today.”
In Greene County, according to the researchers, the numbers are 0 for a “pod” — a small instructional grouping — of 10, 0 for a school of 100, one for a school of 500 and two for a school of 1,000. Enrollment in Yellow Springs Schools was about 700 last year, divided fairly proportionally among the schools, with about 370 students at Mills Lawn, about 110 at McKinney Middle School and about 210 at the high school.
Researcher’s numbers for bordering Montgomery and Clark counties are more stark. Both have a 0 for pods of 10, and Clark County has 0 for a school of 100, but the numbers there goes up to three for a school of 500 and four for a school of 1,000. Montgomery County shows one for a school of 100, three for a school of 500 and five for a school of 1,000.
Researchers estimate that each infected person can potentially affect five others. The estimates, however, according to the Times article, assume children will carry and transmit the virus at the same rate as adults, which has not been established.
Uncertainty about the number of positive cases locally and regionally is also a concern for Holden.
“We still have the issue of getting tests,” she said, adding that she would feel more comfortable about reopening school buildings when testing is more widely available.
When a return feels possible, adopting a phased-in approach is possible, Holden said, with options including having a limited number of grade levels come back first, followed over time by other classes; or a hybrid in-person/online model.
Meanwhile, Holden notified district families in an email Tuesday that a staff member has tested positive for the disease. The message said that the district had contacted Greene County Public Health, and the employee is in isolation. Other employees who were in close contact with the individual have also been contacted and are quarantining as well, Holden wrote.
According to health district protocols, the employee who tested positive will stay home until fever-free without medication for 24 hours, other symptoms are improving and 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared, Holden wrote.
“We are closely monitoring this situation and will provide you with updates as we know more,” she wrote.
Although Holden feels that going online for the first quarter seems the right decision, she said she has concerns about students’ educational progress, health and well-being. Equity of experience for all students is of special concern for the superintendent.
Studies, and common sense, show that younger children and children from lower-income families do not learn as well online as they do in person. Younger children, with short attention spans, benefit from in-person engagement; and lower income students do not have the same level of resources as students from wealthier families, including access to electronic devices and/or internet.
Holden said the district has made an effort to get Chromebooks to all students and to set up internet hotspots for those who don’t have wifi service. And a survey about technology needs, including parents’ comfort level with online platforms, went out to families last Thursday.
The online instructional plan also includes the implementation of what the district is calling the Safe Center for Online Learning, or SCOL. The purpose is to put a limited number of students into groups of eight, who will meet together daily in one of the school buildings under the supervision of a support adult. The students will still participate in online learning, but in a more social setting. Holden has said the district can accommodate up to 150 students, about 20% of the student body, in this structure. Preference will be given to the district’s youngest children, students whose parents can not work from home and students from a one-parent household. According to the district, 75 students had requested inclusion in the program by the 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3, deadline.
A number of parents have expressed concern not only about how to manage their children’s education while trying to work and take care of their families and homes, but also about the instructional hours that students are required to fulfill. The state mandates that elementary school students spend six hours, which includes two 15 minute breaks, in daily instruction, while middle and high school students are required to spend six and a half hours.
Contrary to draft school day shcedules shared with parents last week, Holden stressed that students will not be sitting in front of a computer the entire school day. She said a variety of approaches fulfill the state’s requirements, including teacher instruction, small group work, one-on-one in-person meetings and work on projects that could be offline.
Nobody can stay online all day, she said. “Especially little kids — take them outside, let them run around.”
Asked about how the district will assess the impact that online learning might have on students’ well-being, Holden said that is the next piece in the district’s planning.
“[Implementing] some type of social-emotional learning approach is on our radar and something we’re committed to,” she said. “Academics are one thing, but we have to make sure students are OK.”
A future story will look closer at the online curriculum the district will be using to start the school year.