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Ohio Schools Make Pandemic Preparations For New School Year

Licking Heights High School in August 2019.
Dan Konik
Licking Heights High School in August 2019.

The state’s more than 600 school districts are waiting for the Ohio Department of Education to release its COVID-19 guidance on how to operate in the new school year. But with the first day of classes less than two months away, many districts are making their own plans as they wait.

The Reynoldsburg City School District east of Columbus has about 7,800 students. Superintendent Melvin Brown says like most districts, they're planning for as many scenarios as possible for the new school year, with three main choices: a plan for having every student back in class; a plan to be all virtual; or what Brown thinks will be the most likely case, a hybrid of the two.

"A lot of people are looking for answers and it's difficult to give a definitive answer when we don’t have all of those guidelines and parameters we're already set up to adjust to, so patience is important here," says Brown.

Those guidelines Brown is referring to are the protocols the state of Ohio is expected to enforce as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Districts have questions, such as:

Will there be smaller classroom ratios, or mandatory distance between desks?

Will students be required to wear masks?

Will schools be required to take student temperatures?

On a statewide teleconference with Ohio's 8 urban districts, Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James said they've tried to run down the possible prices for certain mandates for his 20,400 students, which can add millions of dollars in costs.

"There are lots of expenses that we never envisioned when this thing started but a lot of those things are going to impact how we envision our start of school," James says.

DeWine says the state's guidelines for schools is coming soon. He stresses that the rules will allow flexibility for districts from the large urban to the small rural.

"The science doesn't change. The virus is still with us. I trust that the schools are going to do the best they can to protect not only the students but also protect the teachers, custodians, people in the front office, to protect anybody who works in that building, that's the goal," says DeWine.

Many districts are sending out surveys to families to learn more about their concerns. Kadee Anstadt is superintendent of Washington Local Schools, just north of Toledo. She believes the challenges of abruptly shutting down in-person classes in March taught districts a lot about distance learning, lessons that can be used going into this new school year.

"Do we leverage this or do we let it revert. Do we keep that rubberband stretched or do we let it go back? We can't let it go back, because what's good for kids is that we leverage what we learned here and make our classrooms better, more accessible," Anstadt explains. "If a student's dad get diagnosed with COVID this year and they have to stay out for 14 days, we can't let that student miss 14 days of instruction, we just can't."

When it comes to safety, superintendents aren’t just worried about COVID-19. Anstadt says there's physical safety, but also emotional and cultural safety, especially amidst the anti-racism demonstrations. 

Melvin Brown at Reynoldsburg City Schools agrees that safety is the top concern.

"Our biggest contention is that we need to follow the science to make determinations about what this is going to look like. Popular sentiment isn't really what the driving force should be, we should be a position where we can make decisions that are going to be the best for kids and maintain safety while still providing a quality educational program," Brown says.

DeWine did hint at one challenge in particular: transportation. School buses travel 160 million miles a year. Administrators are trying to make plans for how to bus students to school if physical distance or lower rider ratios are required.

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