As coronavirus cases rise, how are schools teaching quarantined kids?

Students at Eastmont elementary in Dayton wait to board the bus at the end of the first day of school on Wednesday Aug. 18, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
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Students at Eastmont elementary in Dayton wait to board the bus at the end of the first day of school on Wednesday Aug. 18, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

Mask policies are getting most of the attention in K-12 schools, but the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and quarantines could have a serious impact on kids’ core education.

Most local schools do not have robust online and remote-learning structures in place for hundreds of children, like they did last year. Students who bounce in and out of quarantine for two weeks at a time this year might be more susceptible to falling behind academically.

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“We have to come to grips with the fact that learning will be disrupted again this year,” said Shannon Cox, superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center. “We were all really hoping it wouldn’t be and that we’d get back on track and catch everybody up. Clearly in the first two weeks of school, that is not the case.”

Centerville schools had about 70 COVID cases in its first week back to classes. Lebanon schools had almost 500 students (nearly 10% of the district) in seven- to 14-day quarantine or isolation after two weeks into the school year. Elsewhere in Ohio, the Fairfield Local and Athens City Schools have already completely closed for several days or a week due to COVID outbreaks.

Most local schools started the year without mask mandates, but many districts like Kettering are now adding them as a way to avoid quarantines. Kettering City Schools had 66 student COVID cases and 230 students in quarantine Friday afternoon, according to spokeswoman Kari Basson.

“We want to do everything we possibly can to make sure kids aren’t getting quarantined and are staying healthy,” Kettering Assistant Superintendent Dan Von Handorf said. “A big part of the change in our mask policy is the reality that more and more kids are getting quarantined every day. … You can’t replicate what happens in the classroom when kids aren’t there.”

Major hurdle to education

Oakwood school officials said mandatory quarantines were “the single biggest disrupter” to student attendance and participation in activities last school year.

Under current guidance from local and state health officials, students and school staff who are exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom don’t have to quarantine if they are vaccinated, or if they were consistently masked and observing physical distancing.

But masks are far from common in many schools. Lebanon Superintendent Isaac Seevers pointed to one COVID case at Lebanon Junior High where 33 students were identified as close contacts by county health officials and 27 students were quarantined. Seevers said if they had all been masked, two students would have been quarantined.

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Even after 18 months of schools adjusting their options due to COVID, for a great many students, learning in the classroom is the best model.

“We have great staff, and our staff is doing the best they can to keep up with those students,” Seevers said of quarantine issues. “But it is not the same as being in the classroom. … It doesn’t replace the teacher, or the Socratic nature of the classroom, where the kids’ questions drive discussion in different directions.”

Different from last year

Northmont Assistant Superintendent Susanne Lintz said the district gave teachers guidance about working with absent students before classes even started this fall.

“We’ve already had to change it a little bit because of the sheer number of students we have out,” Lintz said, as Northmont had 389 students and five staff in quarantine Friday. “Last year, we could just switch those kids who were quarantined over to the remote side. We don’t have that this year because honestly that was very difficult to ask teachers to maintain.”

That was a common refrain last year across the region. As Kettering’s Von Handorf said, “Being a teacher is a full-time job just with the kids who are sitting in front of you,” to say nothing of a constantly rotating group of students trying to keep up from home.

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Many schools use online platforms like Google Classroom, Canvas, SeeSaw and others that allow teachers to post assignments and communicate with students who are out. But the challenges vary depending on the students’ age, the subject matter and the amount of support they have at home.

And while a teacher with two students out on quarantine can probably respond to emailed questions about homework, a teacher with 12 students out simply might not be able to manage that volume while also teaching the kids who remain in class.

Real examples

Most ninth-grade students working from home can call up a social studies assignment posted in Google Classroom, understand the directions, read the material and answer the questions to some extent.

But what if it’s an algebra class, and the quarantined student wasn’t able to see and hear the teacher explain a new concept in class and walk through the sample problems?

What if it’s a first-grader who is just learning to read, and therefore needs significant support at home to understand an activity and follow directions?

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What if it’s a student who was at risk of dropping out and struggles with motivation when there’s no daily interaction with friends and teachers who support them?

Northmont’s Lintz said all of those situations are real concerns.

“For younger students, 10 days is a long time to be out of school. You’re missing a lot,” Lintz said of those foundational skills. “Yes, you can continue to send things home. But we did find that it’s really hard to instruct those students when you’re not face to face with them. That’s why we don’t have a remote option this year, because it wasn’t working for those younger students.”

Tools for teachers, schools

Von Handorf said Kettering teachers still have Zoom licenses from last year so they can reach out and talk to quarantined kids or parents when that’s appropriate. They also built habits last year of giving students online “playlists” of activities to do.

“Some teachers have a stockpile of videos they made last year of themselves teaching lessons, and they can email those home to kids,” he said.

But some families are less tech-savvy, so Von Handorf said when it makes sense, they’ll create old-fashioned paper packets that parents pick up.

Lintz agreed that it’s important to be as flexible as possible. She said Northmont offers a computer device for each student, in case they’re suddenly at home for two weeks. Oakwood Junior High Principal Tim Badenhop said the COVID year had pushed his school into wider use of Google Classroom and other technology.

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Cox said the ESC is providing online education for 150 students from 13 local schools, but that’s a long-term model, not for kids temporarily going into quarantine. Several schools said they’ll continue to offer remote-learning accommodations for a small number of students who have health concerns or unique learning needs.

But Cox said for most classes, it’s important for teachers to keep using the skills they picked up last year, making classroom materials available on whatever online platform their district uses.

“I really hope this actually changes how we do education. This is 21st century learning at its best — we’re just being forced to do it,” she said.

Another abnormal year

Oakwood Superintendent Kyle Ramey said despite high hopes, 2021-22 “is shaping up to be another wild ride” for schools. He and several other school leaders said the hardest part is simply the unknown, as frequent changes in the pandemic force schools to react.

The relationships between teachers and their students are crucial, Von Handorf and Lintz both said, as it’s important for kids to feel a sense of connection to the classroom, even if they’re out on quarantine.

Kettering teachers are great at building relationships and motivating kids to learn, Von Handorf said, but he added that it’s hard to do that through emails or online platforms.

“If your kid is quarantined, make sure you contact the school, and make sure you reach out to the teacher to get everything you can,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but you can try to make the best of a challenging situation if the school and the parents are communicating.”