Athens High School

Athens High School. File photo by Sydney Dawes.

Fall semester in the Athens City School District may proceed digitally this year, officials say.

The Athens City School District Board of Education held a special board meeting last week to hear input from teachers, support personnel, school nurses, and from representatives of the Athens City-County Health Department regarding plans for returning to school in-person for the coming school year.

All individuals who presented to the Board made a plea for remaining in an online learning format for at least the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year.

Molly Wales, who is one of the only two licensed nurses working in the school district, was among the presenters of the evening. Wales also spoke on behalf of Heidi Shaw, the second nurse in the district and the president elect of the Ohio Association of School Nurses.

“If we go back to in-person education, Heidi and I will be on the front lines of caring for sick individuals, both students and staff,” Wales told the Board. “ We will be in charge of creating and implementing policies in an effort to keep everyone as safe as possible. We will be among those who have to dress in full PPE and sit in a small enclosed room with kids with fevers.“

Wales noted that she and Shaw have reviewed the Ohio Department of Education’s Reset and Restart guidelines, and on top of that, have consulted with other school medical personnel, regional health professionals and area families to create a strategy for the upcoming school year. Both voiced that, from their school nurse standpoint, they found an in-person model of education for the fall to be dangerous.

“If we congregate in buildings, even in reduced numbers, there are so many barriers to effective infection control that we cannot, in good conscience, tell parents that their children will be safe or that staff will be safe resuming their normal work responsibilities,” Wales said.

Wales also pointed out that medical professionals and health officials currently lack a “thorough understanding of the virus.”

“During flu season, we know what we’re looking for, and we know how to stop the spread — but with COVID, we are learning as we go,” Wales said during the virtual meeting. “Our understanding of symptoms to look out for, who is affected, and how to prevent the spread, is constantly evolving. How do we, as your nurses, make guidelines to keep the children safe, when we aren’t even sure what ‘safe’ means in this situation?”

Wales noted another barrier to effectively combating viral spread: two nurses having to respond to six school buildings. Because two nurses cannot be in six buildings at once, secretaries and paraprofessionals run school clinics in their absence. According to ODE recommendations, school buildings should also set aside a room, separate from the school building’s clinic, to serve as a “COVID-19 room,” where students with potential symptoms would wait to be picked up by their parents or guardians.

Wales also stated that if a nurse cannot be present in every building, the district must implement “water-tight guidelines” that ensure that aides and secretaries do not have to make a medical decisions. As a result, Wales and Shaw feel that the best way to proceed with this would be to send any child home who exhibits or complains of any COVID-19 symptoms. Students would also be unable to return for 14 days. Symptoms include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea and confusion.

“Normally, if a child comes to the clinic saying they have a belly ache, or asks to rest because their head hurts, we talk to them about how they’re feeling and give them a quiet place to rest — and much of the time, they go back to class feeling fine, problem solved. But no more,” Wales said. She also noted that according to the Center for Disease Control and the Athens City-County Health Department, even if a student or a staff member tests for the virus and receives negative results, they will still be required to stay home for the 14 day minimum.

“I’m sure teachers are thinking, ‘but then no one will ever be in school!’ That is our concern as well,” Wales said.

Another issue Wales raised to the Board was that of personal protective equipment (PPE). Wales and Shaw still need to hash out details in regards to PPE, but Wales told the Board that the district will need PPE for students, teachers, bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, special education teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses and administrators.

“Depending on the person and their exposure, this can range from just needing a mask, to needing N95 masks, eye protection, face shields, gloves, and gowns,” Wales said. “And to follow best practices, none of this would be able to be reused, meaning these costs would be everyday.”

Wales voiced understanding for families in the district, who had to juggle employment and having to have children at home during the school day this spring. Wales said she and Shaw share the concerns of many families in the district.

“Our kids who are falling behind, who are hungry, unsafe, or experiencing other kinds of trauma without school as a safe place to land. We are worried about them, and we are ready to do what we must to take care of them,” she said. “But without physical health, there is no learning. Without physical health, there is no mental health. And maybe, instead of spending our time and resources scrambling to implement infection control that isn’t likely to work well given our limitations, we could instead put our energy into finding creative, realistic, and interactive ways to support our most at-risk kids within the safety of their homes.”

The Board appeared to be in consensus to support beginning the year in an online format.

After the Board meeting, ACSD superintendent Tom Gibbs published a list of his recommendations for the school year on the district’s website. First and foremost, Gibbs recommended full online instruction for all students for Fall Semester 2020. 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, 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.

“The Athens City School District Faculty, Staff, and Administration understand and agree that online instruction as implemented in Spring 2020 was commendable given the emergency nature of the situation,” Gibbs wrote in an announcement posted on the school district’s COVID-19 landing page, “however, we all also understand that we can and will need to provide a more rigorous academic experience this Fall Semester to assure continued learning and growth for all of our students.“

The Board of Education will vote on and approve the plans at the regular board meeting on July 23. The meeting can be accessed via Zoom.

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