Athens High School. File photo by Ben Peters.

Editor’s note: This story is the second installment of a series detailing the experiences of school districts in the county amid the pandemic.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has created unique obstacles for students and their families, a prominent issue Athens City School District Superintendent Tom Gibbs said is the issue of equity.

The district’s superintendent nodded to the daily needs of students and their families. To begin, students throughout the district have parents who both work, and many of these working parents have been unable to work from home during the pandemic. Thus, with children who are learning remotely, daytime childcare arrangements must be made.

And of course, these daytime arrangements need to be in a location where remote learning is feasible. And Internet access is oftentimes geographically unobtainable for families throughout the county and region.

“It’s the reality of southeast Ohio,” Gibbs said.

Much of the part of the district’s pandemic reconfiguration was planned with the goal of creating greater equity, Gibbs said, on top of the daily goal (pandemic or not) of meeting the needs of students.

The district closed prior to the statewide shutdown of public K-12 schools in March, Gibbs said. In-person instruction quickly pivoted to remote programming, and the district was able to bring hundreds of Chromebook laptops and mobile hotspots to area families.

In April, the district also entered into a partnership with Ohio University’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) to provide tech support for ACSD students and instructors. OU also offered the community free guest Wi-Fi coverage in many Athens campus parking lots.

District employees mobilized to continue the distribution of meals to students, as well as continuing their work at the food pantry, which distributes food and other supplies to families out of the former Chauncey Elementary School.

Currently, the district’s bus drivers are bringing meals to students.

Fewer students in the district are eating school meals than when they were learning in-person, with 550 receiving meals now as compared to more than 800 receiving meals in the past, Gibbs said.

District staff utilized the summer months to further develop remote learning capacity in preparation for fall. Teachers and staff were trained to use Canvas, for example, in order to operate their classroom activities remotely. In addition, paraprofessionals were trained 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

Roughly 65 percent of students returned to their buildings through the hybrid model of education this fall, with 35 percent electing to learn remotely, Gibbs said. Also this school year, roughly 2,300 students are enrolled in the district, lower than previous years, as some families have opted to home school their children in response to the pandemic.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, 12 students in Athens City Schools have tested positive for the virus, as of Monday. In addition, 19 faculty and staff in the district tested positive for the virus. However, Gibbs noted that little evidence of school spread and no evidence of community spread as a result of school activities exists.

Students will continue the in-person hybrid model through the end of the first semester (Dec. 21, 2020), but then students across the district will move to full remote instruction on Jan. 4. Students will continue to learn remotely through Jan. 22 and tentatively return to the hybrid model on Jan. 25.

Large developments were also witnessed in the district’s construction projects, with construction of the pre-kindergarten through third grade buildings moving along, as well as the hiring of staff for those buildings. Looking ahead, more construction projects in the district are slated for the Athens Middle School building and The Plains Elementary.

Although 2020 was a challenging year for schools, it wasn’t without reward, Gibbs said. The superintendent pointed to the employees of the Athens City School District as being the major highlight of the year.

“I’ve heard so many stories about teachers spending hours of time making sure a single student could log into classes,” Gibbs said. “It was an entire team effort. They didn’t miss a beat.”

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