Yellow Springs Schools— Online instruction set to continue
- Published: October 21, 2020
Instruction for the 700-some students enrolled in Yellow Springs Schools will remain online for at least another quarter.
After beginning the 2020–21 school year with a virtual instructional approach, the local school board on Thursday evening, Oct. 8, approved a recommendation from Superintendent Terri Holden that the district continue with a remote-learning model for the second quarter, which begins Monday, Nov. 2, and ends Friday, Jan. 15.
The plan will not be a simple continuation of the first quarter, however, Holden told the board, explaining that the Yellow Yellow
Holden, who has said that her preference would be to have students back in physical classrooms, said last week that a variety of “data sets” influenced her recommendation to stay online for the immediate future.
“It’s important to make decisions based on data,” she said. “Not on my gut, or what others around us are doing, and not on my ego and pride.”
She said the pieces of information that had the biggest bearing on her thinking were: the current COVID-19 landscape; the capabilities and limitations of the district’s facilities; the academic calendar; and survey results from parents, staff and students.
Considering the surveys, parents and staff showed a preference for continuing with remote learning — over adopting a hybrid approach that would feature a 50% return to the classroom. But the results from a survey of 7–12 graders were more evenly split, and a survey of fifth and sixth graders favored a return to school, if only half-time.
In approving the plan, school board President Steve Conn noted that when the board voted in July to begin the new school year online for the first quarter, “that was not a decision anybody was happy to make.” But the hope was that pandemic circumstances would be improved by the second quarter. Such is not the case, however; “the arrows are going up, not down, and we have to be sensible about all of this,” he said.
Colors and numbers
“We know that COVID rates are going up pretty much everywhere, Ohio included,” Holden said.
In the state’s color-coded advisory system, Greene County has remained at orange, the second level in a ranking that runs from yellow to orange, red and purple. But the county’s current level is a “high” orange, according to recent state data.
Holden noted that in the 10 days before the Oct. 8 board meeting, the Greene County health department reported 238 new COVID cases, eight hospitalizations precipitated by the disease, and three related deaths.
Numbers are not going down, Holden said, speculating that they could rise further with colder weather bringing a greater chance of disease spread as more people gather indoors. And “no real vaccine is in sight in the short term,” she added.
About a month ago, the state started tracking the COVID-19 case numbers in Ohio’s schools, as gathered by county health departments. Yellow Springs Schools has had no reported cases among students or staff in that time period, though the district reported during the summer that a staff member had tested positive for the disease and any employees who had come in contact with the individual were self-isolating at their homes. There have been no other case reports since.
Yellow Springs is the only district — out of seven — in Greene County, and one of just 10 — out of 55 — public school districts in Greene and its seven surrounding counties, to be following a 100% online model. Eight of the 10 fully online districts are in red-level Montgomery County, which has 16 districts, and one is in orange-ranked Clark County, which has seven.
The six other districts in Greene County have returned to a five-day in-person schedule, while the Greene County Career Center has adopted a hybrid approach, with academic classes online and labs meeting in-person. The remaining districts in Montgomery County have adopted a mix between a five-day return and a hybrid model; while four of Clark County’s districts have returned to a five-day schedule, and two are following a hybrid approach.
The state’s records are updated weekly. In Greene County, according to the most recent numbers released Oct. 8, Beavercreek has had seven student and two staff cases; Bellbrook-Sugarcreek has had two student and two staff cases; Fairborn has had four student cases, two of which were new last week, and six staff cases, three of which were new; Greeneview has had one staff case; and Xenia has had two student cases, one of which was newly reported last week. Cedar Cliff, like Yellow Springs, has had no reported cases. The Career Center is also case free.
Holden cited the age of district facilities as a consideration in her deliberations. The school buildings “are older and in some ways work against us in any return-to-school plan,” she said, noting that Mills Lawn is 68 years old and the middle/high school is 57 years old.
“As such, given that age, we know there are going to be some HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] issues,” with air circulation and filtration being the greatest COVID-related concern, Holden said.
She said the district has purchased “small medical-grade air filtration units” for each classroom, but she doesn’t think they’re an adequate fix.
In addition, many classrooms are not large enough to accommodate the state’s recommended physical distancing of six feet, Holden said.
Out of the 50 classrooms across the two campuses, 24% are larger than 900 square feet; 48% are between 700 and 900 square feet and 28% are smaller than 700 square feet, the superintendent reported, adding that any new school building constructed with public funds in Ohio currently has a minimum classroom size requirement of 900 square feet.
Although most area districts have returned fully or in part to the brick-and-mortar classroom, Holden said Yellow Springs has different circumstances.
“We’re not comparing apples to apples,” she said.
Many nearby districts have new buildings, and as such have a minimum classroom size of 900 square feet as well as newer HVAC systems, Holden said. Some communities are also more comfortable than the Yellow Springs district with disregarding the physical distance recommendations, she added.
The district’s academic calendar also is a relevant consideration, Holden said, because of the two separate holiday breaks that fall in the middle of the second quarter — Thanksgiving in November and the two-week winter break at the end of December.
Students and staff are “in and out and in and out” during that time, and both breaks involve holidays that feature family and other social gatherings that could increase exposure to the virus. The two-week quarantine rules that accompany an exposure could dramatically affect in-person school attendance and operations.
Later in the meeting, board President Conn noted hearing of districts that have returned to in-person classes but already have had to close buildings temporarily because of case numbers and exposures.
Neighboring Fairborn, for example, has since Sept. 23 closed three of its school buildings for different periods of time and sent home the entire sixth grade and sixth-grade teaching staff at Baker Middle School because one or more students or staff tested positive for COVID-19, according to alerts from that district.
“Bringing students back only to send them home again for some length of time because we’ve had an outbreak creates more chaos than having a more deliberate plan,” Conn said.
Superintendent Holden said that the comments on the surveys gave her a lot of information in considering the district’s next steps. She said several themes stood out, including the importance of health and safety for students, staff and the community; and “a huge cry” for connection, particularly in the areas of academic and mental health support, and “the need for kids to be kids.”
That need for connection is driving the district’s intention to provide more structured in-person opportunities for emotional and social support during the second quarter, Holden said.
“Kids need help,” Holden said.
She said that the district will begin offering in-person tutoring and help with organization and time-management, and will focus on bolstering contact and support for students on IEPs and 504 plans.
Students will have more opportunities to meet in-person with others — with a school counselor, for example, or in small student groups, she said.
The schools also will be planning “safe structured social activities,” such as bike rides, nature walks and outdoor club meetings, Holden said.
She said that she has directed the building principals and teachers to develop age-specific plans, a schedule of activities and procedures for participation. Her intention is to have something to share with families by the end of October in order to begin with the start of the second quarter Nov. 2.
“I’m not going to be saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a homecoming dance on the soccer field,’ but we are going to start bringing kids in,” she said, comparing the effort to the high school sports teams that participated in athletics this fall.
Middle/High School Principal Jack Hatert said that he hopes students take advantage of opportunities to come together safely, and he hopes parents encourage their children to get involved.
“We know it’s important for them to feel that connection,” he said.
Mills Lawn Principal Michelle Person said the elementary school will likely set aside one day a week “that’s not online,” where students can come into the building to meet with teachers and other support services.
“These are difficult times,” Holden said. Adding more supports recognizes the pressures students and families are facing, she said.
“Yellow Springs is a values driven community. It’s evident [from the surveys] that we value science, which is an important thing nowadays, and it’s evident that we value the health and safety of each other.”
The parent survey had 453 respondents, Holden said. Of those, 256 (65.5%) favored continuing online with instruction by local teachers, 192 (42.4%) said they preferred the partial-return option and 5 (1.1%) chose going online through a third-party provider. A handful of parents wrote in the comments that they favored a full, 100% return, but that was not one of the options presented.
According to Holden, the school buildings do not have enough space to accommodate necessary physical distancing with all students present for a full, five-day schedule.
The comments section of the surveys is especially informative.
Parents who said they prefer staying online for now expressed concerns about the health risks of holding in-person classes and the disruption of hard-won newly established routines.
“The severity of this situation, I feel, cannot be overstated,” wrote a Mills Lawn parent. “As a nation, we are far from being ‘in the clear,’ and the only way to get there is to continue being as cautious as possible. ‘It’ll most likely be fine’ is not good enough to risk my children or my family’s lives for something that can be done safely as it is right now. We’ve finally found a place where we, as parents, feel like we’ve found a rhythm. This has provided much needed relief from the overwhelming climate of our collective lives. Let’s rest here and catch our breath for a little longer. We can re-evaluate at a later date and hopefully things will continue to improve incrementally.”
Another also wrote of having settled into a routine, and others praised teachers and staff for keeping their children engaged and learning.
“The current method of education is working wonderfully for our child,” wrote one Mills Lawn parent. “Please keep it up for the remainder of the school year. We have gotten into a normal routine, and it would cause distress to our family to figure out how to handle going back to school learning and risking our safety.”
Elementary school parents who wanted a partial return, however, described struggles with online instruction — for their children and families. They cited difficulties with time management and work loads, worries about time spent in front of a computer screen and concerns about their children’s mental health. Some parents of students with learning disabilities said their children weren’t getting the support they needed.
“My student had a great year last year. This year they are struggling with time management and motivation and general sadness. Online learning is hard on them,” wrote one.
“My son is falling behind because he has a learning disability and needs to be back in school for face-to-face learning. He is struggling with his work,” wrote another.
Other comments included:
• “[A partial return] would be the best option for kids’ mental health, if teachers feel that this is a safe option. Kids are spending way too much time on computers and miss their friends.”
• “My daughter is struggling with all online learning. It’s stressful and not the best learning environment. I’m not sure how much she is really learning or retaining.”
High school parents who selected the partial-return option also wrote of online challenges.
“Our son is struggling (and so are we),” wrote one.
“I feel like my student really needs in-person interaction,” wrote another.
Issues with technology and online access also were cited.
The majority of staff members favored staying the current course. Of 64 employees who responded to the survey, 44 (68.8%) favored remote learning and 20 (31.3%), a partial return. Those who selected continuing with online instruction cited the ongoing pandemic, a desire to maintain continuity and concerns about implementing an effective hybrid model.
“I would like to take the second quarter preparing our transition to hybrid,” wrote one teacher. “I feel it would take that amount to get everything in order. I would like the hybrid model to begin when we return in January from winter break. I do not feel like we have enough time to devote to the planning that this will take and I fear that rushing is life threatening. Lastly, cold and flu season is approaching and I think we should remain cautious.”
Many of those who chose the partial-return option said that while a return is preferable to them, noting that learning is best in-person, they also don’t want to do so until area case numbers have declined.
Others, however, are ready for more normalcy.
“It’s time to get students back in the building,” wrote one.
The Yellow Springs Educational Association, or YSEA, the local teachers union, has come out in favor of continuing with online instruction for now.
YSEA Co-president Kate Lohmeyer said that while a majority of teachers agree that continuing to teach online is the safest course, they’re also ready to make improvements on what was offered during the first quarter.
“We need to come to the table, and we need to have hard conversations about what’s working and what’s not, and we need to redesign again … so our students are the ones served,” she said last week. “They’re the ones we’re all here for.”
Students, for their part, want to come back to school, but many feel that the realities of the pandemic don’t allow for that just yet. Holden said 191 seventh–12th graders responded to their own survey, with 101 (52.9%) indicating a preference for remaining online and 90 (47.1%) favoring a hybrid approach. Seventy-five fifth and sixth graders weighed in as well, with 52 (69.3%) favoring the partial-return option and 23 (30.7%) showing a preference to stay online.
“I feel like it’s better to be safe than to go back,” wrote one 10th grader. “I think everyone wants to go back, but it’s not that smart going back with a pandemic.”
“Just because I hate it [remote learning] doesn’t mean I don’t want to be safe,” wrote another sophomore. “I want to stay online until this pandemic is over.”
A handful of students wrote that they preferred learning from home, where they are in their own space, have some flexibility over their time, and for at least one respondent, “get to hang out with my cats.”
Students who hope for a speedy return said they missed “human interaction,” as one put it, and feel they learn more when in-person.
“It’s really not great for my mental health to just sit at a desk all day without actually getting to be near people,” wrote one high schooler. “Now, the more important reason is that it’s very difficult to clarify/understand work sometimes. For instance, math has been very difficult this year due to the inability to work face to face and get things explained in new ways, without going to massive amounts of effort. Like, a question that would take five minutes in class now takes 20 minutes to try to do online.”
The fifth and sixth graders who chose staying online expressed fear of contagion in returning to school, not only for themselves, but also for their families and older relatives.
“I do not ‘want’ to go back remotely in the second quarter,” clarified one fifth grader. “I just think it would be safer because of this gosh-darned virus.”
The majority of the younger students are ready to go back, however.
“I miss seeing my friends” and “I learn better face-to-face,” were common refrains.
“It would be easier to do work. And I wouldn’t have to send an email to ask a question,” one sixth grader wrote.
While instruction during the second quarter will remain online, a “transition team” will be developing plans for the third quarter, which begins Tuesday, Jan. 19, after Martin Luther King Day.
Holden’s hope is that the district will be ready for a partial return to the classroom at that time. The planning will take multiple contingencies into account — “we’ll be doing this, if this” — she said.
“Our size is going to limit us going back to 100% for a while,” she added. “But at 50%, what does that look like?”
The committee will assess the criteria for different scenarios and have a plan to present to the board in December, Holden said.
“It has to happen before we go out on winter break,” she said, so families know what to expect.
“Then we’re set for the rest of the year,” she added. “We know what we’re going to do, and when we’re going to do it.”
Board President Conn said deciding to continue with online instruction was a hard, but necessary, choice.
“This is not the news we wanted to deliver. I want to stress that to everybody. I think everybody would rather us all be back in school in the regular way,” he said last week. “But that is just not feasible. It’s not safe. It’s not honest, really, to do that right now.”
Board member Steve McQueen agreed that Holden’s recommendation to continue online made sense, but he said, as a parent whose household has struggled with internet access and overseeing children doing their schoolwork from home, he sympathizes with the 40-some percent of district parents who favored the partial-return option. The number of households who are ready for their children to return is not insignificant, he said.
Vice president Aida Merhemic said she also recognizes how difficult the current situation is for everyone.
“I think the most important thing is the safety of our kids, our families and our community,” she said. “I think that that’s the only way they’re going to learn and thrive. So keeping that first and forefront feels so, so integral and necessary.”