Masks on students? Online or in-person? Schools debate what classes will look like

Social distancing — in hallways, on buses and in classrooms — will be a challenge if Ohio’s K-12 schools reopen in August. FILE PHOTO

Local K-12 schools are actively planning for fall, with several districts including Fairborn, Franklin, Mad River, Brookville and Lebanon aiming to fully reopen their buildings in August.

But crucial guidance from state health and education leaders — including any potential mandates — has been delayed, causing most schools to push back their formal decisions while they collect parent input.

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With the first day of classes about two months away, schools are not sure exactly how their return from coronavirus-related shutdowns will look. But they expect to have local control over many decisions, and wide agreement exists on a handful of points.

• Most Dayton-area school leaders would prefer to return to a traditional in-class approach, but they have some concerns about doing so safely.

• Many districts say a majority of parents prefer an in-person approach instead of at-home learning or a hybrid, citing local surveys from the past month.

• Most districts will offer some type of online education option for those families who prefer it or need it because of medical vulnerabilities for their child or family.

• All schools are impatiently waiting for updated state guidance so they can get moving. A draft was released May 12, and Gov. Mike DeWine said a major update should be available next week.

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“Preparing for a school year under normal circumstances is daunting,” Beavercreek Superintendent Paul Otten said in a message to parents. “But when you throw a global pandemic into the mix, it becomes a nightmare.”

Centerville, Troy, Northmont, the Horizon Science Academy charter schools and the Dayton Regional STEM School are among many that said they’re making contingency plans for each option — in-school education, at-home learning and a hybrid.

Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins said plenty of functional choices that need to be worked out in making that decision, from masks to social distancing to teacher staffing. But as heated exchanges continue on social media, he said there’s a more overarching worry, too.

“I’m concerned about the contentious environment that could be present because there are so many different opinions on coronavirus,” Hopkins said. “It will test the school community to be understanding of one another’s beliefs more than ever.”

Distancing policy

Federal and state health officials currently recommend keeping six feet of distance between people to limit the likelihood of spreading the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for school reopening says recommendations like that should be “guided by what is feasible and practical.”

Dayton Christian, which will return to traditional in-person school in August, will have students eat lunch in their classrooms to avoid large cafeteria gatherings.

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If the state recommends distancing, it would affect nearly every part of the school day — riding the bus, sitting in a classroom with limited space, walking the hallways at change of classes, eating lunch, and participating in after-school sports or activities.

“We are currently working with Public Health with the belief that returning to school is best for our students, but current requirements make the return difficult to impossible,” Northmont spokeswoman Jenny Wood said. “Maintaining six-foot distancing is not possible in a school environment.”

Warren County’s school districts worked with their health department and came up with a common framework for reopening. They say classroom occupancy and spacing will be decided case-by-case, “with the maximum amount of safety considerations possible.”

But the plan includes a warning of sorts.

“Any student who attends school will incur some level of risk,” the plan says. “Districts will decrease the likelihood of infection with hygiene, cleaning, and safety procedures, but being in a public place has a certain level of risk that cannot be eliminated.”

Masks for students

Both the CDC and the state’s draft guidance recommend masks, especially at times when physical distancing is difficult, to help limit the spread of the virus. A recent Ohio PTA survey showed the issue was a hot-button, and Hopkins, the Brookville superintendent, called it “our most divisive issue.”

Troy Superintendent Chris Piper said any mask policy is “a big issue for many of our families,” especially because most of the district’s buildings lack air conditioning and get warm.

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A Beavercreek schools survey with more than 3,500 responses showed just over half want masks to be an individual choice for students. About one-third want masks at “designated times” and one-sixth want masks at all times.

Health agencies have said masks have a positive effect when worn properly. But a popular social media post points to the likely outcome of a class of 7-year-olds with masks — getting it snagged in a ponytail, sneezing in it, trading with Jimmy because his is cooler, or using it as a blindfold or slingshot.

Even Carroll High School Principal Matt Sableski, who only has teenagers to monitor, said he envisioned enforcing the use of masks as one of the biggest challenges of returning to school.

Other reopening issues

• Busing: Students are usually packed two-to-a-seat on buses, with kids sitting in every row — a plan that doesn't fit with social distancing guidelines. But spacing kids out would mean either buying more buses and hiring more drivers (which is cost-prohibitive), or adjusting the school day so kids arrive and leave at different times, which affects families, staffing, day care and a host of other issues.

Troy and Lebanon school officials called this one of the biggest issues in returning to school. The Warren County schools’ plan suggests normal seating for students, but with face masks “highly recommended.”

“If a district requires students to wear a mask, the district may refuse to transport a student who refuses to wear a mask,” the plan says.

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• Staff issues: In smaller districts like Brookville, Hopkins said many upper level high school classes in math, science and foreign language are only offered in one section, from one teacher. He said if some teachers who are more at-risk for COVID-19 don't come back to school, they couldn't effectively be replaced by a substitute.

Centerville school officials said making time for staff training will be crucial. A school can have a great plan for distancing and safety, but it’s only effective if each teacher and staffer understands what to do.

Christopher Murphy, spokesman for Horizon Science and Concept Schools, said they’ve provided sustained web-based training for teachers and staff, so they “are equipped with the confidence and competence to utilize the many online educational resources and platforms available.”

Supply/cleaning costs: Both state and federal guidance calls for more robust cleaning and sanitizing of buildings. Fairborn schools spokeswoman Pam Gayheart said her district is concerned about purchasing all the cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers, sprays and masks that will be needed.

Schools also might need to hire more custodial staff to clean and sanitize public areas of schools as often as health officials recommend.

Social concerns: Extracurricular activities are critical to the life of high school students, Carroll's Sableski said, arguing schools "have to find ways to have these activities," such as band, athletics and drama. Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen agreed.

“Student mental health is a concern,” he said. “It is not human nature to live in isolation, and being isolated can lead to anxiety and depression issues with limited support.”

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Illness issues: Warren County's plan goes into significant detail on health issues. Students are asked to check temperatures each day, there's a detailed list of what symptoms should keep a child home, and a checklist of what's required for them to return after being sick, including a check by a school nurse.

There’s also a communication protocol from county health officials on how families are notified of a positive COVID test in the schools.

Non-reopening options

Those are a lot of problems to solve in order to return to school, but there are concerns with the alternatives as well.

Most schools said they’ll offer a fully online option to those students who want it, but in many cases, families will have to commit to it for at least a quarter or semester, rather than bouncing back-and-forth between online and in-person.

At-home learning is a great fit for some students, but can be difficult for some special education students, as well as for young elementary students — for academic/maturity reasons, as well as the need for a parent to be there to help. The Dayton Regional STEM School said online school presents a challenge to their project-based-learning model.

Meanwhile, some full-time online charter schools, like Great River Connections Academy, are sending mailers to local families, trying to recruit new students by touting themselves as “the online learning experts.”

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In surveys done by the Brookville and Lebanon school districts, about 90% of families said they want a traditional in-school approach. Beavercreek’s survey showed 70% want in-person education, with about 15% each preferring online-only or a hybrid system.

Franklin Superintendent Michael Sander said most of his families want schools open, and they cited problems with this spring’s at-home approach.

“We will need to try to eliminate the nine-month to one-year academic slide due to the early shutdown of in-person schools and the fact that we have over 1,000 students without internet access,” he said.

Springboro schools are surveying their parents now, asking their preference between a full-return to school model that would include distancing and masks at times, versus a blended model where each student alternates between some days at home and other days at school.

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For the blended model, they ask families whether they’d rather alternate one week in school and one week online, or divide it up within each week — group A goes Monday-Tuesday and group B is Thursday-Friday, with everyone online on Wednesday.

Sander said he’s concerned about planning for a million small details, in light of decreased state funding and the knowledge that more changes could come from the state if the outbreak changes.

Carroll High School and the Horizon Science schools are among those who say they may not announce plans until a week or two into July, as circumstances continue to change.

Hopkins said the state has put schools in a bad position for the fall by the way reopening is going today.

“Let’s not talk about (schools) keeping students six feet apart and wearing masks all day or sitting one to a seat on the school bus when they’re playing youth baseball/softball, hanging out at the swimming pool and playing laser tag (all summer),” He said. “Keep it real.”

What’s Next

The Dayton Daily News is digging into what’s next as our community adapts to life with coronavirus. Next Sunday, we’ll examine what school will look like for the students in our biggest district, Dayton Public Schools, as well as youth sports across the region.

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