Editor’s note: This story is the first installment of a series detailing the experiences of school districts in the county amid the pandemic.
It’s been an unconventional year for David Hanning, the new Federal Hocking Local School District superintendent. The former Athens High School principal said he had begun to become acquainted with the new district and its buildings, but a major event made consistency difficult.
In March, public schools in Ohio were shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic; students in the Federal Hocking Local Schools made their return to buildings this fall in a hybrid modality.
“It’s been a learning process for all of us,” Hanning said in an interview. “I’ve been relying on a great team of people.”
The district, which contains about 900 students across Federal Hocking High School, Amesville Elementary School and Coolville Elementary, recently pivoted to remote learning, and Hanning said the district made the switch not because of its COVID-19 caseload, but because of the numbers of students and staff who were in quarantine.
According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, only one active case exists among students, and three faculty or staff care active as of Dec. 21. Hanning said that confirmed cases among students and staff of Federal Hocking were results of outside exposure, and there isn’t evidence of community spread related to school activities.
After winter break begins, students in Federal Hocking schools won’t return to their classes until Jan. 19, a decision made in an effort to limit contact between students and staff after the holiday season.
Although remote learning has been recommended by public health leaders, it isn’t without obstacles for members of the school district community, Hanning said. Most pressing: it’s difficult for students and their teachers to communicate remotely when so many households in the district are without internet access.
“Some families are in a place where the kids have to wait for dad to be home to use the hotspot on his phone,” Hanning said.
He noted the district was a recipient of a broadband connectivity grant, but such grants are useful for the purpose of building on existing broadband infrastructure and aren’t entirely helpful when an area is lacking.
The district however was able to purchase 40 hotspots for families in the district. Additionally, students in grades 3-12 have Chromebook laptops for their schoolwork, and the district is working to improve connectivity inside and outside of the district’s buildings, aiming to improve WiFi services at its three facility locations, Hanning said.
Teachers and staff in the Federal-Hocking district have participated in professional development segments where they can beef up their technical skills, regardless of how comfortable they were with technology prior to the pandemic.
Even when teachers have the ability to digitally connect with their classrooms, then comes the obstacle of getting certain students to log on for their daily assignments.
“Sometimes parents don’t have the capacity to help students,” Hanning said. “And some students struggle to engage even when they’re here in person. It hurts us.”
Some obstacles students and staff faced this year existed before the pandemic, but in addition were also exacerbated by it, Hanning said. For example, a large number for students and families in the district are considered “food insecure,” meaning they lack access to nutritional food sources and are uncertain when and what their next meals will be.
Some students — in the district, the state and nationwide — also experience violence and mistreatment after the school day ends. Reports of child abuse and neglect have fallen since the start of the pandemic. Public health experts have voiced concern about the possibility of this decline resulting from children having less frequent contact with the people most likely to report suspicious at-home behavior: teachers and child care workers.
“School is the safest place for kids,” Hanning said, “and our most vulnerable students are more vulnerable. We’re trying to make sure everyone is safe.”
The school year has not been without its triumphs, Hanning said. To start, he pointed toward the staff operating within Federal-Hocking. Teachers, he said, are “natural planners,” and the pandemic has created a time where planning is difficult, but his staff adapted to change swiftly.
“Everything is constantly changing, and we’re not sure what the future holds,” he said. “They (the faculty and staff) really care about the kids… not having them in front of them everyday causes a lot of anxiety and concern.”
Workers in Federal-Hocking mobilized in order to deliver meals to students, notably setting up delivery locations for daily distribution at the beginning of the pandemic.
Hanning also pointed to his teachers’ ability to quickly learn technical skills they may have not had before the start of the pandemic.
“I’m proud of how our entire staff has responded,” Hanning said. “It was a real school-community effort.”