Yellow Springs schools— April 5 eyed for larger in-person return to classes
- Published: March 13, 2021
During a special work session of the Yellow Springs school board, conducted online Saturday morning, March 6, the district superintendent said she is working on a plan to increase students’ in-person classroom time to near pre-pandemic levels.
The local schools, which began the academic year with 100% online instruction, went to a “hybrid” model combining online and in-person classes effective March 1, with elementary school students in their building two half days a week, and middle and high school students attending in-person classes two full days a week.
Now, the superintendent is talking about bringing everyone into their buildings for at least four full days a week beginning in April.
An unstable Zoom connection during the first part of Superintendent Terri Holden’s report to the board made unclear what details, if any, were shared about the likely change. In follow-up communications with Holden on Saturday, she replied to questions from the News with little additional information, indicating that she will present more details during the next regular board meeting, Thursday, March 11. She did confirm that her hope is to open the schools more fully beginning Monday, April 5, but that date is “not confirmed yet.”
During the work session, Holden told board members that the first week with the hybrid model in place had been difficult for students and staff.
“Nothing is ever as easy in real life as it is on paper,” she said, alluding to the challenges of following a hybrid schedule.
She also noted that COVID-19 case numbers are falling, and more people are getting vaccinated. School staff, 93% of whom have signed up for vaccinations, will get their second dose Friday, March 12. The promise of warmer weather will also allow more opportunities for outdoor instruction and activities, including lunch, Holden said, adding that she has ordered more picnic tables for school grounds.
Holden said she believes these circumstances put the district in a better position for a wider reopening.
“It’s certainly doable,” she said.
Although conditions are improving, they do not meet the metrics set by the district in early December for either a hybrid or full return to the classroom. The district’s part-time reopening March 1 was prompted by Gov. Mike DeWine’s mandate tying vaccinations for K–12 teachers and staff to an at least partial return by that date. Holden agreed to the exchange on behalf of the district, saying in January that she felt she couldn’t turn down an opportunity to vaccinate her staff.
On Saturday she said that while the district’s metrics — based on the number, distribution and trends related to area COVID-19 cases — have not been met, “there is no doubt that they’re getting better.”
Also, the vaccination of staff has added a positive variable to the overall equation, Holden said.
“The team that created the [metric-based reopening] plan, in many ways we were groping in the dark,” she said of the group of administrators, teachers and staff who last fall compiled a set of conditions for a safe return, approved by the board in early December.
“Things were so different in December than they are March 6,” Holden said.
“We’re at another deciding point,” she continued, noting that the district will have been following the hybrid model for a month by the first Monday in April and she anticipates relief among students and families in transitioning to a more familiar in-person instructional model. She’s waiting to hear back from the teachers union, however, about teachers’ feelings concerning a fuller return at that time.
Several board members expressed enthusiasm for the possibility of further reopening.
“This is hugely exciting,” board President Steve Conn said, adding that he has also heard from families who are struggling with the hybrid schedule. He also affirmed the difficulty in setting metrics amid changing circumstances.
Sylvia Ellison said her support is bolstered by “the high participation [among staff] in the vaccination opportunity” as well as the “reports of students following the safety guidelines,” such as mask-wearing, while they’re currently on the school campuses.
Board member TJ Turner asked about quarantine guidelines with the new plan.
Holden replied that the national, state and county guidelines have changed multiple times, but the district will continue to “take a more conservative approach.”
Taking a more reserved response, Steve McQueen noted that spring break, a typical time for family travel, falls near the anticipated fuller return. With teacher conferences Thursday and Friday, March 18 and 19, and spring break scheduled Monday through Friday, March 22–26, students will in effect have no school March 18–28.
“Is that a concern?” McQueen asked of the travel possibility.
Holden didn’t answer directly, but replied that none of the typical spring break destinations are currently on the travel advisory list. She also said that during that time she intends to see her family in Cincinnati and her in-laws in Philadelphia, all of whom she hasn’t visited in a year.
Conn reiterated his pleasure with the proposal of a fuller in-person return in April.
“We’re counting down now, and that feels good,” he said, adding that families “have been heroic” through the past year.
Other matters discussed during the March 6 work session:
Facilities master plan
“We are moving forward,” Holden told the board in an update on work to develop a master plan for the district’s school buildings. She noted that since mid-January, there have been five meetings of the planning steering committee, three of the Community Advisory Team, seven of the Education Visioning Team and two community forums, all conducted online.
She reported that the process is focusing in on possible options, having as of Saturday eliminated two scenarios previously under discussion. Off the table is a proposal to construct a K–12 campus on land currently part of the Antioch College campus as well as one of three suggested options involving a partnership with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, or OFCC.
Holden said the Antioch site — about 10 acres near Corry and Allen streets — is too small for the district’s needs. In addition, she said participants in the planning process expressed the opinion that buying property when the district already owns land doesn’t make financial or practical sense to them.
The OFCC option no longer being considered featured limited renovations at the middle/high school campus on East Enon Road for placement of a K–12 facility there. Holden said the projected cost was too close to that of a similar OFCC option involving renovation plus partial construction.
Now under consideration, in addition to the combined renovate/construct option, is construction of an all-new K–12 facility on East Enon Road or renovation of the existing school buildings where they are currently located.
Holden said renovation, which was previously listed as “Option 0,” has been renamed the “Renovation Option.” She did not offer an explanation for the change, but members of the community had criticized the original description as reflecting a negative bias.
In offering her update to the board Saturday, Holden said she also wanted to address several facilities-related issues being discussed in the community, some of which came up during the most recent community forum Thursday, March 4.
One involves the cost of renovation compared to construction. The figures compiled by SHP, the architectural firm facilitating the district’s master planning, as well as OFCC, show similar overall costs of about $30 million or more whether the district renovates or builds new.
Noting the presence of incredulity within the community that renovation costs must necessarily be so high, Holden said that industry standards require a certain level of quality.
She added that SHP’s Todd Thackery noted during the last community forum that when the district was working on a master plan three years ago, OFCC standards were higher than accepted industry standards, but they are aligned now. The revelation suggested the validity to criticism of OFCC’s recommendations at the time.
“Now there’s no difference,” Holden said of the current recommendations, adding that she could find no justification for providing students with “substandard” facilities. She pointed to discussion during a recent meeting of the Community Advisory Team, attended by this reporter, in which participant and parent Kineta Sanford said she saw the issue of building standards as one of equity for students.
“We wouldn’t accept this in an urban setting,” Sanford said of talk about doing less than standard.
Conn, who before running for school board election was part of the strategic planning effort a decade ago, said that improving the district’s school facilities was an important piece of that planning.
“We, the community, have known this was a problem for a long time,” Conn said.
Another issue of concern for Holden that arose during last week’s community forum is the perennial question about the benefits of the district’s open enrollment policy.
Repeating some of her response during the forum, Holden asserted that, “Our open enrollment students are our students,” and her support of the district’s policy is unshakable.
Besides the social contributions open enrollment students bring to the local schools, the district benefits financially from their presence, she said. This year’s 189 open enrollment students, 27% of the full student body, bring $1,137,780 in state money. Holden said the loss of their numbers would mean not only the loss of those funds, but also the likely elimination of special classes and sports teams and the reduction of staff.
Holden said that she and district Treasurer Tammy Emrick are working on documents about financial aspects related to facilities to be posted on the master planning website, ysforward.com. In addition, maintenance head Craig Carter and the head of operations, Jeff Eyrich, are putting together a spreadsheet on facilities maintenance and a schedule of maintenance work to be posted on the website as well, she said.
“Our goal is battling the perception that we don’t share all information,” Holden said.
Agraria bike path
Also discussed during the work session was the impending sale to the Village of a strip of land along the southern edge of the middle/high school campus for the construction of a bike path connecting East Enon Road and the Agraria farm property. District Treasurer Tammy Emrick reported that the purchase price is $60,000 plus reimbursements for attorney and survey fees.
“It’s been many months in the making, and we look forward to seeing this project to completion,” Board President Conn said of the bike path.
Questions from board members about prom and graduation ceremonies revealed that plans for both spring milestones are under discussion.
Holden said a community member has offered the use of an outdoor venue for prom, if the district approves it.
She also said high school graduation will likely take place outdoors, as the gym is unsuitable, and that the grounds southwest of McKinney Middle School are being considered. She said a possible plan is to designate areas where families can bring their own chairs and sit together at a distance from other family groups.
Holden shared with the board aspects of a developing update to the district’s strategic plan, which expired with the graduation of the class of 2020.
Basic to the plan are four organizational goals: improve teaching and learning; become a more equitable organization; create a strong school culture; and work collaboratively with the community.
Holden said she will put the plan on the agenda for the regularly scheduled board meeting March 11.