By Sydney Dawes
Athens NEWS Editor
Athens City School District students will begin this upcoming semester by learning remotely, but district officials will re-evaluate the state of the district later this fall and plans may be adjusted.
The ACSD Board of Education convened virtually on Thursday evening in a Zoom meeting that spanned four hours to discuss how students and staff will interact this upcoming school year, among other agenda items.
The Board previously met in a special meeting earlier this month to discuss the possibility of moving to an online-only school model for the upcoming fall semester in response to the rising number of confirmed and probable coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the area. Board members voiced approval of such a model, but also voiced concern over committing to an online format for the entirety of a semester.
ACSD Superintendent Tom Gibbs posted a list of recommendations for the fall semester on the school district’s website. First and foremost, Gibbs recommended full online instruction for all students for the fall semester. He also recommended that district officials reassess the conditions of the current health emergency during the month of November 2020 to determine if face-to-face instruction can begin at the return from winter break.
“Any decision for Winter Semester 2020-2021 would be based upon recent COVID cases and activity, as well as input from local health officials and educational professionals,” Gibbs wrote in his recommendations.
Gibbs also recommended a change to the school calendar to allow Aug. 17-28 as teacher/staff professional development. Students would return to school on Aug. 31. This would not require days to be added to the end of the school year, Gibbs said. In addition, Supt. Gibbs recommended that district leaders consider food pickup points to reduce confusion of meal delivery.
Next, Gibbs recommended the training of paraprofessionals to work as “case workers” who would be assigned students with whom to make direct contact who may not be attending school or may need additional organizational support and guidance. In addition, Gibbs recommended that some teachers be reassigned to assist the district’s director of remote instruction. Gibbs also recommended district leaders identify non-tech resources and materials students may need at home in order to complete course assignments. This may require the district to work with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to obtain resources for students.
Boardmember Kim Goldsberry noted that although she supports starting off the school year online, she felt re-evaluation every nine weeks would be crucial for families in the district. Goldsberry commented that since the Board’s July 13 special meeting, she has received numerous emails from families in the district who have expressed worries over a distanced-learning model.
“It’s almost three to one with families who need in-person,” Goldsberry said. “I think that it is a disservice to families who want and need an in-person learning environment.”
In a preliminary survey sent out to families in the district earlier this year, 30 percent of respondents voiced they would prefer a full-online model. Another 30 percent voiced they would prefer the five-day, in-person model. The remaining 40 percent preferred the “blended” model of education: in-class instruction on some weekdays, remote learning on others. The blended model could have also opted for a staggered schedule for the building, limiting the number of students and staff permitted at one time.
The school reopening plans, with Goldsberry’s suggested change, passed, 4-1.
The lone dissenting vote belonged to Boardmember Grippa, as he felt parents should decide if their students attend school in-person or not. Grippa also compared teachers to first responders and other essential employees, stating that even if people are uncomfortable they “still have to go to work.”
Jack Pepper, Health Administrator of the Athens City-County Health Department, spoke to the Board at the regular meeting about the state of coronavirus response in Athens County, as well as various Center for Disease Control recommendations for restarting schools this fall.
Pepper noted that ACSD has a unique factor to consider that other school districts in the area may not: the arrival of Ohio University students.
“You can’t expect to double the population and not see new cases,” Pepper told the Board.
Boardmember Grippa requested data specific to the Athens area, but Pepper explained that due to health privacy laws, health agencies cannot share specific geographic data. Rather, the city-county health department can share countywide data and data organized by age and gender.
Pepper told The Board that an online-only format of education this fall would be the “safest way without question” to return and echoed information passed down from the CDC in terms of isolation and quarantining students and staff who display COVID-19 symptoms if an in-person or blended model of education were to be utilized. For example, students and staff would need to go into isolation for a minimum of 10 days with at least one 24-hour period of time without a fever (without the use of fever reducers). In more severe cases, people would need to go into isolation for 20 days.
Public participants who requested speaking time during the regular meeting had mixed thoughts about how fall semester should proceed. First addressing the Board was Athens County Juvenile and Probate Court Judge Robert Stewart, who said board members may be “standing in the forest and only seeing the tree,” in the conversation about restarting schools.
Judge Stewart noted many children in the area need in-person education not only for social development, but also as a haven from abuse and food insecurity. He ultimately urged the Board to find a way to reopen the district’s school as quickly as possible.
Also presenting to the Board was Anne Cornwell, who requested the return to in-person education. She noted her son, a student in the district, “didn’t learn anything” while following the district’s remote learning model this spring. She pointed to other school districts in the county and in surrounding counties who are moving not to implement online-only education models for an entire semester.
“I’m asking that we not be the only school to make a blanket statement,” she told the Board.
Gretchen Gregory, a mother of a child who will begin kindergarten in the district this fall, urged the Board to consider flexible schedules if the Board were to choose a distanced-learning model, as many parents and guardians of students in ACSD must work during the day. In addition, Joshua Thomas asked the Board during the public participation segment what its plans were in regards to extra-curricular activities.
Supt. Gibbs noted that athletic programs, for which parents and guardians must sign health waivers regardless of a pandemic, could provide opportunities for the district to test out their health and safety protocol. Gibbs also suggested “pilot programs” consisting of a small number of students that could meet in-person.