Send kids to school or keep them home? Dayton families must pick soon

This July — usually a downtime for schools — parents must weigh whether to send their children back to school buildings, and districts such as Dayton Public Schools will study how to manage classrooms full of masked students.

Dayton Public Schools announced Wednesday that it intends to offer both a full in-class option and an at-home learning option when school reopens from the coronavirus-related shutdown. Parents have to pick one or the other by Aug. 1, with little ability to switch mid-year.

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The Dayton Daily News is examining what’s next for our community as people, businesses and organizations adapt to life with coronavirus. That includes how Dayton Public Schools — our largest school district with unique challenges and that is key for our entire region to thrive — will move forward.

For some families the choice to go back is easy — because of work, child care issues or their child was a bad match with online learning. And those with medical or bullying concerns might have little hesitation keeping their kids at home to learn.

But for many families, it’s not that simple.

“In reality it’s probably not going to work very well, but I don’t know what better you can do — parents still have to work, kids still have to learn,” said Dave Fanjoy, father of two DPS students. “But if it really is getting transmitted and you jam a bunch of kids together and they’re only 2-3 feet away … there is no good option.”

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Fanjoy said he’s glad Dayton schools will offer multiple approaches and have communicated it early, but he’s not happy about limited social distancing or the hurdles to switching midyear if a student’s first choice isn’t working out.

Cameron Walker said her daughter actually did better with online learning this spring and might stick with that route this fall.

“If you can’t guarantee my child’s safety at school and you can’t follow the six-feet social distancing rule, I think there will be a significant number who will opt to stay home,” Walker said. “But there are a lot of different variables for families in making that decision.”

Different world for teachers

As far as a guarantee of safety, DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli echoed what Warren County school districts said last week.

“There’s still a chance, no matter what precautions we take in our schools and no matter what precautions they take in their homes, that someone may still contract (COVID-19),” Lolli said.

Dayton teachers union President David Romick said teachers are concerned about whether the district will have enough protective equipment, how they’re supposed to respond if a student appears sick and how social distancing and shared class materials will be handled.

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Romick said there’s no way it would work budget-wise, but “it almost seems like there needs to be a health compliance person” in classrooms. That way teachers could focus on teaching rather than policing kids’ masks, distancing and symptoms.

Dayton schools have moved the start date back a week, to Aug. 17, to give teachers and staff more training on safety guidelines.

“It’s a whole different component to classroom management,” Romick said. “Training is going to be crucial, and I’m glad the district has agreed to do that.”

Lolli has said face coverings will be mandatory in classrooms, and DPS has ordered clear face shields that are put on like a pair of glasses.

Teachers’ feelings on face coverings are mixed, Romick said, as is society at large.

Some teachers with medical concerns — he didn’t know an exact number — already expect to take sick leave rather than return to the classroom in August. It’s too early to know yet, but Lolli said some of them could be asked to help with online schooling.

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From a purely academic standpoint, Romick agreed with Lolli’s push for the state to adopt a revised set of minimum English and math standards for this year that focus on a narrower set of core skills, acknowledging that many students fell behind during an unexpected learn-from-home fourth quarter this past spring.

That’s one of several issues the union has already discussed with Dayton schools administration.

“We’re interested in hearing specifically what the governor has to say … but we’ve worked with the district since April on these potential reopening plans and intend to do so right up through the opening of school,” Romick said. “This virus doesn’t follow any rules. As things change, we’ll keep adapting as we need.”

Plan details still emerging

The state guidance Romick referenced — from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the state departments of Health and Education — has been pushed back to the coming week.

Dayton Public Schools officials said information about lunch procedures, sports and extracurriculars will come out during the next week, as they also watch for state updates.

“Not everything is going to be perfect and not everything is going to work the way we anticipate it to work,” Lolli said.

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The district did two COVID-specific online parent surveys, one drawing about 1,800 responses and the other 1,300. Just over 50% of respondents want to send their kids back to school five days a week, Lolli said, close to 25% want to go online and 25% want to wait for more information.

The district’s online school approach will be through a vendor, which is still being decided. The possibility exists that multiple Montgomery County school districts will choose the same one, Lolli said. The setup will be one where lessons can be watched anytime and won’t feature a live teacher.

But students and families will be able to call four days a week in the late afternoon or early evening to talk to a DPS teacher and work through any problems.

Lolli said student online participation was poor this spring. At first, 2,000 of Dayton’s 12,000-plus students had not logged on at all. So the district sent staff members door-to-door to reach those kids. By the end of the school year, school officials still had zero contact with about 600 kids.

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DPS is working on many details.

• The schools fixed all bathroom soap dispensers and affixed hand-sanitizer dispensers to walls in key spots.

• They’re working on specific plans for recess, with some play equipment closed because it would be hard to sanitize frequently enough.

• In some cases, one teacher will travel from classroom to classroom for different periods, so that a group of 20-plus students can stay with the same peers rather than mixing with many more students.

• The first student to board each school bus will go to the last seat, the next to the second-last seat and so on, so kids aren’t walking past each other.

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• Students will have their temperature checked as they come off the bus, and a student fever could result in all students on that bus being quarantined.

If there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 cases, Lolli said an individual school could be closed for 14-28 days, with students given “ready packs,” including a Chromebook and other supplies, so they can start online learning from the first day of the closure. She said the full school district would only close if there’s an order from the state.

Tough family decisions

Walker asked if the district could put some students in currently vacant DPS buildings to space people out more, or work with child care centers, churches or after-school partners to “think outside the box” on better social distancing.

“That’s really what has to happen I think for families to feel like, OK, we’ll be cautious and we’ll do this,” she said. “We have to continue to do our part as families. And the schools have to do their part and adhere to those guidelines.”

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Dayton parents on social media are asking about student mental health supports, free lunch for students who choose online learning, face shield hygiene rules, students’ willingness to re-engage in school if they fell behind, and a host of other issues.

Fanjoy said his daughters are starting at a new Dayton school for seventh grade this fall, so he really hopes they can be there for the transition.

“I very much don’t want to keep them home. They really need to go and do that,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m not going to send them into a dangerous situation. … We’re going to have to do some soul searching and see how that’s going to work. Every single family is going to have to make hard decisions with not enough information,” he said.

Walker thanked the district for creating multiple parent surveys and urged DPS to keep pushing for family input to make sure they understand the wide variety of concerns that families have.

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She said her list includes supporting teachers, eliminating state testing, making the most of new federal funding and making sure all students have live connections with teachers.

“The biggest concern would be my kid being in a classroom and potentially getting ill,” Walker said. “I used to wipe my daughter down from head to toe as soon as she got home from daycare because we know it’s a petri dish. … We don’t know what’s going to happen in August, because every week something changes.”

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