LIMA — The COVID-19 pandemic forced Ohio schools to rethink how to educate students.
On July 2, Gov. Mike DeWine came out with a whole list of recommendations on how education should look when school resumes next month.
DeWine’s recommendations to get students back to school is done with safety in mind.
“I think there is a strong consensus among teachers or principals, parents, the public around Ohio, that our kids need to get back into the school building,” DeWine said. “We’ve developed a set of guidelines backed by science that each school should follow in developing a real game plan. This approach allows schools to adjust their rules to what works best for them to create a safe environment and one that will protect students and staff from the spread of COVID-19.”
Reset and restart education
Local school districts will primarily dictate what school in the fall looks like under the Reset and Restart Education Plan. The information in the guide is not mandatory but merely a roadmap for educators.
Whatever health and safety guidelines are implemented by the Ohio Department of Health and local health departments will need to be followed by schools as they open up.
Teachers will be required to wear masks, but it’s optional for students in grades 3 and up.
“We ask the schools to look at the science and develop a policy. They should look to the best science and developing a facemask policy. I would imagine that some schools would be comfortable in starting masks in kindergarten, some first grade — some later,” DeWine said. “The majority opinion, as far as we can tell, appears to be the children kindergarten through fifth grade can wear masks as long as allowances are given the age and developmental level of that child and the physical situation that the child is in at that particular moment.”
The guidelines suggest social distancing and the availability of hand sanitizer.
Students who have a temperature of 100 degrees and show symptoms of COVID-19 will be monitored and reported to the health department.
Schools will continue to disinfect classrooms.
Local districts plan to reopen
Auglaize County school superintendents met Tuesday to discuss their reopening plans with the Auglaize County Health Department. Putnam County superintendents did the same on Wednesday with their health department, and Allen County superintendents met on Thursday with Allen County Public Health.
The school districts are continuing to work on a plan that best suits their needs and comply with statewide health orders. Many plan to share their work in the coming week.
“We wanted to come up with a joint opening statement, and that’s what we were working on. We have what I’m calling a final draft. We’re hoping we can go public with this Monday,” said Craig Kupferberg, superintendent of the Allen County Educational Service Center. “Each school district will have some individual differences.”
Joel Mengerink, superintendent of Elida schools, says his district wants to release its plan to the community.
“We have been busy this summer working on a return to school plan, just as every other district has been. We have been meeting and communicating with the county health department, and our plans will reflect that when we release them,” Mengerink said. “The challenge for everyone has been how much things change on a nearly daily or weekly basis. We know families and staff are concerned, and we are going to do our best, just as we always do, to give them a safe environment to learn in.”
Shawnee schools should have their plan ready by the first week in August.
Putnam County superintendents are closer to coming up with a workable solution.
“All of our county schools are working with the health department to put a plan in place. We want to be as consistent from school to school as possible, accounting for differences from one district to another,” said Don Horstman, superintendent of Ottawa-Glandorf schools. “What we’re looking at is how we can get back on as close to a normal schedule as possible. We’re going to be doing daily health assessments for staff and students prior to getting into the buildings. This is where we’re still developing exactly what some of those protocols will look like.”
Wapakoneta schools released its plan Wednesday. Superintendent Aaron Rex said the highlights included:
• Students will have assigned seats in the classrooms.
• Students will be asked to sit with the same students every day for lunch.
• Visitors will be prohibited from entering the building unless they have an appointment or it is an emergency.
• During class, students will be instructed to move to their next period and not to congregate in the hallways.
• There will be no field trips until further notice. The Washington, D.C., trip is still under discussion.
• School will start 30 minutes later in each building, eliminating the congregating of students in gyms, cafeterias and hallways. Students will come directly to class.
• If you do not feel comfortable sending your child to school, you should contact Charlotte Schnippel at 419-739-2905 to make arrangements for online learning.
Formulating a plan
All area districts surveyed are planning to go to a five day a week schedule.
“We got together with our maintenance supervisor, cafeteria supervisor, administrators, school nurses, union representation from our classified and certified — tried to just have a broad group of people representing each department and looks through the reset restart plan, looks through the health prevention guidance plan, the county plan that I sent you, and then kind of curtail that down to, ‘What’s this gonna look like specifically in Wapakoneta?”” Rex said. “The five things that (the governor) outlined for us to do are all possible and most of them were — other than staff having to wear masks — most of them were either recommendations or guidelines that you’d have a little bit of flexibility with.”
Perry schools are still working on a plan.
In a posting last week, the district acknowledged specific details of their reopening plans would be released by noon Friday.
“At this time, we are planning for all students to return with added safety precautions at all levels. The Perry Local Schools will offer an online curriculum option for students who have health concerns and are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19,” the statement read.
Lima Superintendent Jill Ackerman indicated they’ll have a statement Monday and did not want to comment until then.
Masks or face shields for staff and teachers will be mandatory under the governor’s plan but not mandatory for students.
“So in our plan — in the county as well — we put in there that (mask-wearing) is strongly encouraged for students who are in grades three to 12, but that’s a personal decision. It’ll be left up to the parent to decide if they want to send their child (with or without a mask),” Rex said.
Putnam County is still working the details out on masks.
“We are still working with the health department on how they want us to handle those things. If we would have masks be mandatory, it would be in grades three through 12 in all likelihood. We did have a conversation if we’re going to do anything like that, we want to let parents know as soon as possible,” Horstman said.
Allen County’s mask plan will make masks mandatory for all staff and strongly recommended for students in grades three through 12.
Busing and social distancing
Most school districts use buses for transportation, and dealing with COVID-19 will be tricky.
“You’re not going to be able to have social distancing on buses. There are going to be guidelines when kids ride buses,” Rex said. “We’ll strongly encourage kids to wear masks around buses because you can’t have social distancing. You’re going to sit siblings together. You can have assigned seats, so you’re sitting with the same student every day if they’re not related to you because the health department’s going to want you to contract trace. If the kid comes back COVID-19 positive, they’re going to want to know who their partner was, who they were sitting with on the bus,” Rex said.
If you ride the bus in Putnam County, expect to wear a mask.
“We’re going to require masks of all students riding the bus. Bus drivers will have to wear masks,” Horstman said for Ottawa-Glandorf schools. “We’re looking at how we’re going to handle the seating.”
Each individual school district will have to consider how feeding the students will look. Cafeterias differ from building to building, and social distancing will be challenging for some.
“Some of the smaller schools in particular, they have long, long tables, like ones that fold up. Some of them even fold up into the walls. Others have round tables that they can spread out. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to spread the children out as much as we can,” Kupferberg said. “We don’t want more than 10 students in any one area. They’re going to do what they can to spread their kids out in the cafeteria. Some, especially at the lower levels, we’re talking that we won’t even send them to the cafeteria. We’ll have them eating in the classrooms.”
Last week the Ohio High School Athletic Association fired its executive director, Jerry Snodgrass, replacing him with Bob Goldring, a 25-year veteran of the organization. Goldring will now be saddled with guiding Ohio high school sports in the fall.
As of now, things are moving forward in implementing a fall sports season.
“We’re planning on it right now,” Rex said. “Our goal is to have a fall sports season, but it makes you nervous when you see the (COVID-19) numbers spike in Ohio in certain places, and then you’re a little bit fearful that they’re going to dial things back. But as of right now, we’re selling our season tickets for all of our sports.”
Kupferberg added, “I’m a high school football official. I want to get out there, and I want to officiate. I certainly hope we have all the fall sports going. I sure hope they look at that sport by sport because playing football is quite a bit different than playing tennis or golfing. So I hope they look at each sport individually and just they’ll make a decision for the entire fall season.”
When DeWine announced the guidelines for schools to open he also released information on a new color-coding system to designate where the COVID-19 hotspots are county by county.
If an area county goes to red, or Level 3, the schools will likely have to pivot back to remote learning.
As of Wednesday, Allen, Putnam and Van Wert counties were listed at a level two (orange).
“If we get to the point that this ramps up, and we have to do something where it’s more virtual learning for a couple of weeks, we want everybody to be on the same page, and we want staff and students to have worked together enough so that they all are comfortable if we had to go back to that type of instructional delivery,” Horstman said.
As with any plan, if the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow, any plan made now could change.
“A lot can happen in four or five weeks. So some of what we’re saying we’re going to do, might need to change,” Kupferberg said.
Whatever school looks like next month, one thing is for sure: The solution will be costly.
“I guess from my standpoint, the guidelines are great. Now I wish the money would follow to implement some of these things,” Horstman said. “Unfortunately, when you’re a number of districts that were cut the way we were, this is not going to be easy or inexpensive to implement. You’re going to have a lot of extra man-hours and supplies that need to be purchased in the way of cleaning supplies and disinfectants. We’re going to have to buy masks for all of our staff members, so that’s going to be an expense. You’re going to need to get things like face shields in some situations, Plexiglas dividers in certain situations,” said Horstman.
On Thursday, DeWine announced an effort to allocate $200 million for higher education and $100 million for K-12 schools in Ohio through federal CARES Act money. On Monday, the proposal goes before the state controlling board for consideration. That money, if approved, would be funneled down to local school districts to help with the new expenses.
Plan earns praise
The Ohio School Boards Association, Buckeye Association of School Administrators and the Ohio Association of Business Officials sent out a news release shortly after DeWine’s announcement, praising his approach.
DeWine’s plan utilized feedback from the three organizations along with school counselors, school nurses, union representatives, parents, students and the Ohio Department of Health.
“We appreciate the thoughtful manner used to provide a framework that allows for local flexibility for school districts, coupled with reasonable approaches to health and safety considerations,” according to the news release. “We are particularly supportive of the broad flexibility and local control afforded to school district leaders through the school reopening guidance. This will allow each district to make decisions that best suit its students, staff and community. There is a range of differences in how the coronavirus pandemic has affected communities and school districts; the solution to the various challenges school districts are facing cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach,” the news release stated.
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.