Back to normal? Depends on the school, and the issue

“Back to normal” was a key goal for many K-12 schools and families this fall after 18 months of COVID-related disruption.

The recent COVID surge added a wrinkle to that plan, but Dayton Daily News interviews also show that “back to normal” means different things to different people.

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For families who stayed online last year, just having in-person school five days a week is a big change. For others, the “mask or no mask” decision is a key step. But there’s more — can visitors come to school again? Will students keep using technology more? How are schools watching out for struggling kids?

The busiest week of back-to-school season is upon us — by Friday, about 105,000 Dayton-area K-12 students will be back in class — and schools have different approaches to “normal.”

“The return of students to their respective buildings and feeling comfortable at school again will be challenging,” Fairborn Superintendent Gene Lolli said. “Academically, with the varied options for students and families during COVID, monitoring academic strengths and weaknesses and addressing those issues to make sure that students are learning and growing (are key).”

What is normal?

Asked to compare next month to two years ago (pre-COVID), Carroll High School Principal Matt Sableski said he expects Carroll’s “daily operations to be nearly identical” to September 2019, outside of any necessary COVID quarantines. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple.

“Our biggest challenge will be reestablishing routines and customs that are important to our community,” Sableski said. “Not only are we still navigating a real threat of the virus, but over half of our student body will be ‘new’ to our customs and routines.”

On the other hand, Lebanon schools Curriculum Director Mark Graler said while they’d like this fall to be as close as possible to 2019, “it seems it will be more like last year.”

Northmont Superintendent Tony Thomas said it’s important to keep in mind that even without a pandemic, lots of things change for schools over any two-year period, so “back to normal” is relative.

“It is safe to assume that some students did very well during the pandemic, but others struggled, so there is a wider range within classrooms,” Thomas said. “Student progress monitoring, while always important, is even more important now.”

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While those academic concerns have always been at the center of schools’ missions, Milton-Union Superintendent Brad Ritchey emphasized the “whole-child” approach that is key to Ohio’s strategic plan for education. On that front, Ritchey, doesn’t want to go back to the old normal.

“We must maintain our increased focus on the social-emotional needs of our students,” he said. “Compared to September 2019, there are several more supports in place, and there is renewed attention on establishing strong relationships with our students and families.”

Kettering Superintendent Scott Inskeep said his district’s biggest challenge this year is to provide a mostly back-to-normal atmosphere, so students and staff can get back to education and “all of the other positive things that being in school and having a ‘normal’ year means to kids.”

“Things like athletics, the arts, practices, scouting, social interaction and routines are so important to the development of the whole child,” he said.

COVID not a total loss

Covington Superintendent Gene Gooding said a few COVID-inspired procedural changes will stay because they worked well. Some staff meetings will stay virtual, elementary students will still be dismissed in smaller groups rather than all at once, and the high school will maintain two days of block scheduling each week.

Chaminade-Julienne officials said they’ll continue to offer many events both virtually and in-person or a hybrid of the two, “due to the benefits they provide to the community.”

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And Oakwood Junior High Principal Tim Badenhop said the move to a computer device for each student and district-wide use of Google Classroom have “more permanently affected our instruction” going forward.

“There is an opportunity this year for our district to take the best practices from last year and carry them forward, while also swinging the pendulum back a bit to utilize our in-person instructional and (social-emotional) strategies that we know are best for student learning,” Greeneview Superintendent Sabrina Woodruff said. “The challenges from last year have helped us grow our tool box, so we will be able to pivot if the need arises.”

Money for learning loss

One thing that will be different this fall is that schools got federal COVID relief funds, in part to help students rebound from any learning loss.

Piqua Superintendent Dwayne Thompson said they’ve already been working on that, holding summer school sessions that helped many students. But others who would have benefited didn’t participate.

“We will not know the extent of remediation needed until we get all students back and begin the process,” he said. “Remediation may take some time.”

Elsewhere, Fairborn and Huber Heights schools are using federal money to hire dozens of additional tutors and teachers for small group and 1-on-1 intervention for students who need it.

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Dayton is putting an extra teacher in nearly every first-, second- and third-grade classroom to lower student-teacher ratios. They’re also using federal money to add math and reading specialists.

Dayton Teachers union President David Romick said it’s especially critical to get back to normal in Dayton Public Schools, after the district bounced in and out of online learning last year, cancelling all classes between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then going to school through June.

“We can’t afford to go back to remote learning. That didn’t work,” Romick said. “We definitely can’t afford any glitch or interruption with quarantining that results in a change to the school calendar.”

Some caution, some optimism

Miami Valley Career Tech Center Superintendent Nick Wendy said it will take longer than normal this school year for students and staff to get back into a rhythm.

“A school operates like a living organism, and it is very dependent on each person, both staff and students, knowing what role they play,” Weldy said. “With so many adjustments last year, it will take time, support and patience from all involved.”

Colleen Cullison, spokeswoman for the NHA charter schools in Dayton, agreed time is needed for “change management.” She said it takes a lot of energy for teachers to adapt to daily or weekly changes due to COVID-19.

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Christopher Murphy, speaking for the Horizon Science Academy schools in Dayton, said this fall will be different because many of their students have not been physically in the school for over a year. They’re back in-person, with masks for all, but he said more time will be needed to help students adjust.

On the other hand, Dayton Christian officials said last year’s in-person learning went very well. DC will not require masks for anyone in their schools this fall. Spokeswoman Julie Thompson said DC is “committed to offering an environment that feels safe, offers hope, and seeks to meet each student’s social and emotional needs.”

Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins was the definition of “cautious optimism.”

“COVID-19 has obviously begun to reemerge as an unwelcome challenge to this school year,” Hopkins said. “However, we proved to ourselves last year that we can do this. Thus the challenge is to stay positive and focus on serving our kids and their families.”


Functional back-to-school steps

When it comes to the daily details of a school year, there are things that are changing and others that are very similar to last year.

** Cleaning/safety: Nearly every local school surveyed said they will continue enhanced cleaning protocols. Alter High School Principal Lourdes Lambert said they’ll also keep last year’s 6-foot desk spacing, additional time between classes and one-directional staircases. Masks are welcomed, but optional.

“We believe that an in-person education is best, and we strive to remain in person for the 2021-22 school year as we did during the last year,” Lambert said.

** Online school: A majority of schools said they are not offering an online model for students who want it this year, except in special cases, such as medically fragile students. Troy and a few schools are continuing that option, on their own, or in cooperation with their county Educational Service Center. Lebanon and Valley View are among the schools that do have a few remote days planned in their calendar.

** School lunches: The U.S. Department of Agriculture extended its funding program allowing schools to offer free school lunches and breakfast for the 2021-22 year.

** Volunteers/events: Schools are split so far on whether they’re fully going back to in-person students assemblies, parent conferences, volunteer visits, full-attendance musical/theater performances and other previously modified activities.

Dayton Public Schools will not allow most visitors to schools. Dayton Christian will allow visitors, and masks will not be required. Springboro will be a mix, where they say there will be no volunteers in school buildings to start the year, but families and community members “will once again be able to attend small and large school events.”

ABOUT THIS SERIES

The Dayton Daily News is examining the back-toschool issues that matter to you every Sunday and throughout the month of August. For stories you might have missed, visit our schools page at DaytonDailyNews. com/backto-school/

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