Local schools hope to stay open; is it sustainable in COVID winter?

Beavercreek High School students work in a photo darkroom on Oct. 8, 2020.
Beavercreek High School students work in a photo darkroom on Oct. 8, 2020.

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Local school leaders must decide whether in-person school is sustainable in the winter months to come, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have surged, and the state is not making any mandates.

No ideal choices exist, leaving schools to pick the “least bad” option.

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“These are incredibly taxing times for all of us, but especially for our students as they are forced to constantly adjust to a new schedule,” Dayton Early College Academy Superintendent David Taylor wrote in a letter to parents late last week announcing that the charter school was moving to remote learning through the end of winter break.

Some educators would like to keep classes in-person, citing research on how school works best. Some health officials urge schools to move online, citing dangers in how COVID-19 spreads. Parents are split, in part due to difficult child care and job pressures created by stay-at-home school.

Add to that Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County last week recommended schools transition to remote learning after Thanksgiving, citing “outbreaks in multiple sectors, including … K-12 schools.”

Beavercreek Superintendent Paul Otten said his district will do everything it can to make in-person school sustainable for the families who want it. But it may come down to whether the schools have enough non-quarantined teachers, bus drivers and other staff to make in-person school work.

“We believe our teachers deliver the highest level of instruction in their classroom with their kids,” Otten said. “The other reason is that our kids having some normalcy and being around their peers is critical for their mental health. … Being in-person allows us to have our eyes on our kids, support them and respond to the needs we’re seeing.”

But Beavercreek moved its high school to online classes this past week because of staffing shortages. Fairborn canceled busing because numerous drivers were in quarantine, then announced plans to move fully online. Dayton Public Schools canceled school altogether for the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break, with teacher absences a key reason.

Students at Thurgood Marshall High School in Dayton work in a science lab class in November 2020. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Students at Thurgood Marshall High School in Dayton work in a science lab class in November 2020. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“I think it’s fear of, am I going to contract the disease? Is someone in my family going to contract it because I take it home? Am I going to cause a colleague to become ill?” Dayton Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said of staff shortages. “That’s what is controlling this right now.”

Many still want school

Nearly every school district allowed families to stay fully online if they were uncomfortable sending their kids back to face-to-face classes this fall. In many schools, that’s been 20 to 30 percent of students since August.

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But in most places, a majority of families wanted their kids in school, whether for academic, social, mental health, or job and childcare reasons.

Thirty-seven of the 40 local school districts, plus every local private school, have offered in-person classes in some form this fall. Of the other three, Yellow Springs offers some 1-on-1 in-person tutoring, and Northridge intended to go in-person, until cases surged again. Jefferson Twp. committed to a fully online semester from the start.

Many districts holding in-person classes have had to adjust. Centerville schools announced this week that it will go fully online from Monday through at least Jan. 15.

Parents’ responses ranged from understanding, to frustration at bouncing back and forth between models, to anger from parents who believe that the youngest students and special education students simply will not be served effectively in online classes.

Dayton schools started the year online then went to a hybrid model the past two weeks. But parent Jaimee Ryan said she was conflicted by DPS now halting that model after just two weeks. She said it won’t be nearly as hard on her as on families with job or childcare problems.

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But after an all-online first quarter when her seventh-grade daughter was often bored, the in-person days in the hybrid model had been a plus.

“She really enjoys the days she’s been able to go in,” Ryan said. “The social aspect of seeing a handful of friends’ faces and actually meeting your new teachers has been really good for her.”

The structure of an in-person routine is valuable, Ryan said as well as the connections with peers and teachers. Lolli agreed, saying many students need the in-person model to learn effectively. Some DPS teachers said fewer than 50% of their students regularly showed up for online class in the first quarter.

Teacher, bus challenges

While families generally had a choice on whether their kids would go to school or learn at home, many teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others had less choice.

Dayton teachers union president David Romick said teachers want to be in front of their classrooms “if there is a safe way.” But safety and effectiveness don’t always match.

Teachers have limited how much they move around the room to work with students — a crucial part of the job — because of social distancing and contact tracing concerns, Romick said. Teachers also struggle with simultaneously teaching in-person and online students, he said, due to camera and audio issues.

ExploreDayton schools completely halt classes until January

In the two weeks of Dayton’s hybrid model, Lolli said there were a high number of staff call-offs, creating a daily “nightmare” of shuffling staff given a shortage of subs.

In some cases aides gathered students in a cafeteria, Lolli said, and helped them get logged into classes. Administrators covered some openings, Romick said, and teachers doubled up classes, which eliminates the social distancing that the hybrid model is supposed to allow for.

“At that point, it’s verging on unsustainable,” Romick said. “With COVID the way it is, hybrid is probably the best we can do. Is it providing effective education? I don’t know. We’re not going to know that for awhile.”

Dayton Public Schools staff work to keep cafeteria tables clean and sanitized at River's Edge Montessori School in November 2020. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Dayton Public Schools staff work to keep cafeteria tables clean and sanitized at River's Edge Montessori School in November 2020. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Lolli knows there’s no guarantee the COVID situation will be better when DPS tries to return in January, but she’s worried that little to no in-person instruction could lead to a “lost year” for many students.

Todd Silverthorn, Kettering schools’ busing supervisor, said quarantines have hurt already thin bus driver staffing in many districts, and if a trainer tests positive, it can sideline every driver he’s worked with.

Other busing concerns exist for winter — the ability to leave windows open for air circulation, and the drying time for sanitizer sprayed on buses in colder weather.

Silverthorn, who is second VP of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation, said families should be prepared for the possibility of late-breaking delays or cancellation of some routes, making communication channels crucial.

Trying to stay in school

Even schools that have been in-person all year are preparing for the worst. In the past 10 days, Brookville and Milton-Union schools sent messages to families explaining what might happen if they had to suddenly move to online classes.

Springboro Superintendent Larry Hook said the district’s goal “is to remain in school until we simply can’t,” echoing Milton-Union that a lack of subs for teachers and bus drivers is the biggest risk to remaining in-person.

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Many Beavercreek families want as much in-person time as possible, Otten said, even if that means some hassles. He said seven students had only one in-person day in October because after a 14-day quarantine, they were exposed to another COVID case on their first day back, and had to quarantine again, hurting the continuity of their education.

Alter High School had been in-person all year, with small classes and social distancing helping them avoid big problems. But Alter shifted to remote learning Thursday after learning of five new student COVID cases.

Principal Lourdes Lambert said Public Health has been “a valued partner” all year, and the health of students and teachers is at the forefront of every decision the school makes.

But she said last week’s stay-at-home advisory for the county may not fit Alter’s individual situation, and she hopes the school can return to in-person classes after Thanksgiving.

“Our mission is to serve one another and minister to one another, and we know that is more effective in person,” Lambert said. “Another very important reason to try to return is the mental health of our students. We know that mental health issues are on the rise in our community, and we know that we are better able to meet our students’ mental health needs through in person education.”

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