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Yellow Springs Schools— Reopening amid uncertainty

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Yellow Springs Schools’ plan to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year has changed since the publishing of this article. Read about the changes in the July 16, 2020 issue of the News.)

This is the first part of a two-part article. The second part will feature responses of families to the school district’s reopening plans, including a deeper look at the recent parent/guardian survey, as well as the thoughts of local teachers.

Yellow Springs Schools will begin the 2020–21 school year with a resumption of “regular, in-person classes,” Superintendent Terri Holden announced last week. However, “vulnerable” students whose families are uncomfortable sending them back to the classroom will be offered an online learning option.

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The start date, as previously announced before the in-person return was decided, is anticipated to be Thursday, Aug. 27, a week later than originally scheduled. The school board is expected to finalize the date change at its next regular meeting, Thursday, July 9, along with an earlier start time for the school day.

Holden notified district families about the local reopening decision a day before Gov. Mike DeWine officially announced the state’s plan for reopening Ohio’s more than 5,000 schools this fall, which is outlined in a newly released 36-page document titled “Reset and Restart Planning for Ohio Schools and Districts.” The governor’s announcement Thursday, July 2, confirmed his intention, expressed over the last couple of months, that students would return to brick and mortar classrooms at the start of the 2020–21 academic year.

“I think there’s a strong consensus among teachers, school principals, parents and the public around Ohio that our kids need to get back into the school building,” DeWine said during Thursday’s press briefing.

DeWine said the state’s decision was also influenced by the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, which has concluded that the benefits of being “physically present in school,” with safety protocols in place, outweigh the pandemic-associated precaution of continuing to keep students at home.

While Ohio is moving forward with the expectation that all schools will reopen, the state is leaving the specific plans up to individual districts.

“The idea that schools are controlled by local communities, by the parents, by the school boards that are elected, is ingrained, I think, in all of us,” the governor said, going on to say that his goal is to balance local control with the “state interest in protecting our kids and making sure our kids get educated.”

Amidst the pages of the state’s school restart guide, the only real requirement, however, is that all staff members — teachers, administrators, aides, custodial workers, office support, etc. — wear a mask, a rule that DeWine noted is consistent with the statewide order for workers in all places of employment. Other recommendations, including maintaining physical distancing of at least six feet and asking students from third grade up to wear masks, are “aspirational,” DeWine said.

The state’s guidelines “allow schools to adjust their rules that will work best for them,” the governor continued. “If six feet means no school, then [maintain] three feet,” the distance recommended by the national pediatrician association, DeWine said in response to a reporter’s question about the difference in suggested measurements.

Yellow Springs’ decision

The local decision to resume in-person classes was not made lightly, despite the state’s expectation, according to Superintendent Holden.

“Our decision was informed by the results of our parent survey, which indicated a strong desire to resume normal, in-person classes this fall.” Holden wrote in the district announcement sent to families Wednesday, July 1.

The “Remote Learning and Reintroduction Parent Survey” went out to families on May 27 and took in responses through June 10. The 13-question document queried families about their experiences with remote learning this past spring as well as their needs should the district continue online in the fall. None of the questions asked directly whether families wanted their children to go back to school or stay with an online curriculum, though one posed a possible scenario of returning to the classroom in smaller groupings, or for a limited number of days each week, with a blend of online instruction.

Of the 247 responses received by the district, choosing from four prescribed answers to that question, 130 respondents, or 52.6%, selected “I plan to send my child(ren) to school for face-to-face and blended instruction next fall with precautions in place”; 71, or 28.7%, responded that they were “Unsure at this time”; 35, or 14.2%, selected “I plan to have my child(ren) attend online until I feel it is safe to have them resume face-to-face instruction based on safety precautions”; and 11, or 4.5%, indicated “I plan to have my child(ren) remain in online instruction until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.”

In a phone interview this week, Holden said she believes a return to the school setting is the best course moving forward amid difficult circumstances.

“I just think it’s important for us to be back to school,” she said. “There’s a connection that kids need.”

Online learning can’t fully replace the in-person, student-teacher dynamic, the superintendent said. Nor can it provide the social experience of being in school with one’s peers. Schools also offer a safety net for children living in precarious environments.

The issues that educators must consider are broader than the COVID-19 pandemic, Holden said, adding that she feels there is some economic and lifestyle privilege involved in conversations about reopening schools that focus on the virus without factoring in other student and family needs.

Her question right now isn’t just how the district should address the virus, but “how do we help our families,” she said, adding that trying to work full time and effectively oversee children’s online studies is not sustainable for most families.

“If I’m a parent trying to care-take my kids and make a living, there’s no way I can do it,” she said.

Addressing COVID guidelines

At the same time, establishing safety procedures in response to the pandemic is a consuming priority for the district, Holden said, adding that the school system is working closely with the county health department in developing a districtwide plan.

Aspects of the plan outlined in Holden’s July 1 letter include:

• A requirement that all students, in addition to staff, wear a mask at school and on buses. Exceptions will be made by the superintendent in consultation with the health department;

• An expectation that guardians will monitor their student’s temperature and overall health daily before sending a child to school;

• The suspension of field trips and assemblies;

• Seating charts on buses;

• The installation of new seating and plastic partitions in classrooms;

• Limited visitation;

• Frequent cleaning of high touch areas, surfaces and materials;

• The continuation of food services, with the logistics to be determined.

But the ever changing nature of the pandemic means nothing is for certain — even measures already announced.

One significant example: Holden this week said that she is reconsidering the earlier stated requirement that students in every grade level wear a mask.

“I would love it to be all students, but I think we need to talk about our kindergarten and first grade students,” she said. “I would prefer all grades,” but that might not be practical, even with the child-size masks already purchased by the district.

Still, she would rather implement a policy that is consistent in including everyone, she said, noting that “masks are just going to be our new way of life.”

Also under consideration is determining what recess will look like and considering at ways to get students outside for instruction.

“We can certainly do that [hold a class outdoors], but at some point it’s going to rain,” she said.

Rearrangements inside classrooms will be needed, as will new furnishings to replace or modify the “old” tables that over time took the place of desks in most classrooms. The price tag of the preparations is yet to be determined, the superintendent said. The governor said last week that he hoped to find money through the federal Cares Act, passed in response to the COVID crisis, or the state’s previously initiated child wellness program, to help districts pay for pandemic-related costs, but Holden said the district can’t count on extra funds.

“I’ll take anything we get, but I’m not holding my breath,” she said. Recent cuts in Ohio’s education funding, initiated in response to COVID-related revenue shortfalls in the state budget, reduced the district’s 2019–20 operating budget by more than $140,000.

Cost aside, Holden said she appreciates that the state’s reopening guidelines are suggestions rather than mandates.

“There’s not a single school that’s going to be able to do [all] those things,” she said of the guide. “The governor said [to do] as much as possible. We will have done as much as we possibly can.”

Online option/vulnerable students

Holden said she recognizes that some families will not feel comfortable with their children returning to the classroom in six weeks, as the parent survey results indicated, with 18.7% of the 247 respondents expressing their desire to allow their children to continue with online instruction even if a blended approach were adopted.

In her letter to families, Holden wrote that the district “will provide a complete online school option” for “vulnerable students” in kindergarten through 12th grade.

This week she said that “there’s no criteria” for determining “vulnerable” status, and that the decision to choose the online option is up to families.

“It’s not my place to question parents about their motives,” she said. “There is no intention or desire to put them through any hoops.”

While the online curriculum has not been decided, she said it would be “standards-based and grade-level” appropriate. The curriculum will be approved, purchased and offered through the district, but the amount of local teacher engagement is still unknown, she said. Students will remain enrolled in Yellow Springs Schools, but the curriculum will not duplicate or mirror what is going on in the schools.

“I don’t think there’s any curriculum that captures what we do at Yellow Springs,” Holden said.

Students who decide on this option will be required to continue with online learning for an entire semester at a time. Students at the schools also will be expected to remain in that setting, with a different set of accommodations put in place if they become ill or need to stay home for any time during the course of the semester.

These rules are part of the shared agreement among Greene County districts to ensure consistency and cooperation among the area schools. At the same time, other districts in the state are adopting a variety of models for students’ return. Some are planning to stagger the hours or days students attend, so that fewer students are in their buildings at the same time. Some are adopting a blended approach considered at one time by Yellow Springs.

Holden said that the local district is moving forward with a full return — five days a week for the entire school day — for the same reasons it’s reopening in the first place: to support district families by providing a consistent schedule of instruction and care.

Ultimately, “we’re at our best when we’re face to face,” she said.

But much is still undecided or unknown.

Dr. Chris Peltier, president-elect of the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, recogninzed the unknown element when speaking during the governor’s briefing last week in support of the state’s plans to reopen the schools, also noting that his organization represents about 3,000 pediatricians and all the children’s hospitals in the state.

“This [the pandemic] is a moving target, as we’ve seen the last few weeks,” Peltier said. “What’s reasonable now and what’s working now may not be the same come October, especially when we start to see cases of influenza.”


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