Athens High School

Athens High School. File photo by Ben Peters.

Athens City Schools have begun their phased return to buildings for hybrid instruction.

The ACSD Board of Education met via Zoom on Oct. 15 to discuss the schools’ phased reopening and other items. Groups of students — students who did not opt to learn remotely for the school year — have begun attending classes in their buildings for in-person instruction a few days per week. The days of the week that the students will not be attending in-person instruction, they will be learning virtually.

ACSD Supt. Tom Gibbs updated board members during the Oct. 15 school board meeting about the phased return. He noted that in an August survey, which 835 families responded to, 30 percent of respondents voiced preference of a full-online model. Another 30 percent voiced they would prefer the five-day, in-person model. The remaining 40 percent prefer the “blended” model of education: in-class instruction on some weekdays, remote learning on others. The most recent numbers from the survey of families show that 35 percent of families in the district preferred an online-only model, while 65 percent of families preferred a hybrid format.

Preschool-aged students have been returning to their buildings beginning Oct. 12. Additional grade levels and buildings will be added over a four-week span with the following schedule:

Oct. 19-23: Kindergarten, Grade 7 (Athens Middle School), Grades 11-12 (Athens High School)

Oct. 26-30: Grades 1-3, Grade 8 (AMS), Grades 9-10 (AHS)

Nov. 2-6: Grades 4-6

These students are also divided into two groups. Students in “Cohort A” will attend school in their respective buildings on Tuesday and Wednesday and will have online work at home Thursday, Friday and Monday. Students in “Cohort B” will attend school in the building on Thursday and Friday and will have online asynchronous work at home Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. All students who will be attending in-person instruction will be required to wear face coverings throughout the day, with the exception of students who have a documented exemption. Most students will eat their lunches in their classroom, and students will be expected to maintain six feet of distance between one another whenever possible. Class sizes are relatively small, with the largest in-person class in any district building consisting of 21 students, Gibbs said, with 10 students attending in one cohort and 11 in another. In all, 1,500 students will be attending schools for the hybrid learning option. The district will pivot its students back to online-only learning if needed, Supt. Gibbs said, and that decision will be made with the guidance of the Athens City-County Health Department.

The district announced in a statement on its website in September that it will not rely on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System for its decision-making; instead, it will focus on community spread of COVID-19 “beyond the university student population,” the statement says. Supt. Gibbs explained during the Oct. 15 meeting that this decision was made for a variety of reasons. The state’s COVID-19 alert system analyzes counties by how many case indicators they meet: new cases per capita, sustained increase in new cases, proportion of cases that are not congregate cases, sustained increase in emergency room visits, sustained increase in outpatient visits, sustained increase in new COVID-19 hospital admissions and intensive care unit (ICU) bed occupancy.

For months, the majority of COVID-19 cases in the county have been reported in the 20-29 age bracket, and cases continue to rise in this demographic.

“When you take out the OU student issue right now, we have a relatively low number of cases,” Supt. Gibbs said. He also pointed to the low hospitalization numbers in Athens County.

On behalf of the Athens Education Association, Sabrina Stalder addressed the school board Thursday evening during the public participation portion of the evening. Stalder said that a major hurdle for educators was learning a new education platform, Canvas.

She also noted that an email was sent to educators on Sept. 30 detailing the phased return to hybrid learning.

“Because teachers were teaching, many of them learned of this change from their students,” Stalder said during the Oct. 15 meeting. “The email announcement led to many questions students and parents about the return to school plan, and we were unable to answer those questions.”

In a recent survey of its membership, the Athens Education Association found that 94 percent of respondents said “lack of input” was the most concerning issue with the district’s plan for reopening. Other speakers of the evening, Kourtney Koestler, Paul Golter and Talisha and Allan Kisner, also voiced a desire for greater community input and communication as the reopening process progresses.

The Board moved to increase the number of their meetings in the coming months in order to discuss plans and make adjustments depending on the community COVID-19 climate.

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