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Preparing for the return

Schools look for vaccine to restart in-person learning

Staff file photo / R. Michael Semple Volunteer Rick Stockburger, president / CEO of BRITE Energy Innovators, right, reads a book to second-graders at Lincoln PK-8 School in Warren in October 2019 as part of the United Way Volunteers Read 4 Fun program. Warren schools, which went to all remote learning just before Thanksgiving, will return to in person learning in phases on Jan. 21 and 25.

Most Mahoning Valley school districts are working to be open with students learning in their buildings by March, as desired by Gov. Mike DeWine.

But they are concerned about making sure the buildings are safe for everyone inside them.

DeWine last week said school districts wanting to have their staff get the COVID-19 vaccine should have written plans for their students to return to school buildings by March 1.

Teachers are among those expected to receive vaccines in Ohio’s Phase 1B rollout expected to begin over the next two weeks.

Brookfield Schools Superintendent Toby Gibson said his district’s schools reopened last week.

“We are back to the hybrid model that we began the school year with, back in August,” Gibson said. “We have between 8 to 10 percent of our students that are completely remote. The majority of our students have been attending classes in our classrooms, but on a staggered schedule in which some are in the buildings a few days a week.”

Gibson said he has been in contact with parents whose children have been attending schools on a fully remote basis. He’s trying to determine if, and when, they will be comfortable allowing their children to return to school buildings with other students.

The superintendent said his primary concern is making sure he is protecting the health of both students and staff.

“We are reviewing what is happening every two to three weeks,” Gibson said. “Look at what happened over the last five weeks. We’ve been in and out of quarantine.”

The Brookfield school district has an estimated 1,020 students.

HYBRID PLAN

Girard Superintendent Bryan O’Hara said the district, which has been operating under five-day remote learning since September, this week will begin bringing students back under a limited hybrid plan.

“Group A, which has approximately 600 students, will begin this week and group B, also with approximately 600 students, will begin in-building learning during the week of Jan. 18,” O’Hara said. “Students in Group A will have classes on Wednesday and Group B students will begin having in-building classes on Thursdays.”

The district has 1,800 students. Approximately 70 percent currently are being taught through the district’s hybrid portal. The remainder are being taught with an e-learning program that allows students to learn at their own pace.

“We are gathering survey data from our residents to determine when they want their children to return to our buildings,” O’Hara said. “We intended for our students to return to in-building learning during our second semester.”

O’Hara emphasized the district wants its students back in the buildings, but only under the safest possible conditions.

“Having the vaccine will help because it will impact on the spread,” O’Hara said. “We want to make sure we can keep students 6 feet apart even when they all return.”

VACCINATIONS

LaBrae Superintendent Anthony J. Calderone, too, said his school district wants students back in its buildings — but only when it’s safe.

“Data has proven that in-school transmissions have been low,” Calderone said. “Those identified having COVID-19 — mostly staff and teachers — generally were exposed in the community, away from school.”

“Vaccinations will alleviate staffing issues,” Calderone said.

Most of the LaBrae students have been doing in-person learning this year. The district has 1,050 total students, with 180 participating in full remote learning programs since the beginning of this school year.

“We expect 60 of these kids to return to in-person learning next semester,” Calderone said. “Once they return, we will have about 10 percent of our students participating in remote learning programs.”

Warren schools are expected to reopen Jan. 21 for one group of students and Jan. 25 for a second group. The two groups — cohorts B and A — may be combined to attend school four days per week as early as March, depending on health conditions and adult vaccinations in the city and among district employees.

As district officials plan for the return of students over the next two weeks they are continuing to plan for phasing in some student activities, such as its 21st Century afterschool program, as well as some extracurricular and co-curricular groups, including meetings, practices and competitions.

“We have been preparing for a vaccination opportunity for our staff in coordination with local health officials as soon as it becomes available, and we believe this will help us return our students and staff to the classroom, hopefully as early as March,” Superintendent Steve Chiaro noted.

LARGEST DISTRICT

Youngstown schools CEO Justin Jennings is non-committal about when students in the Mahoning Valley’s largest district will return to classrooms for in-person teaching.

Youngstown schools have been operating under an all-remote system since the governor closed schools last spring.

“We are continuing to review our options,” Jennings said. “We are looking at the science in making our decisions. We are talking to local and state health departments, to doctors at both Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, and are looking at what is being done in school districts with similar socio-economic makeup as Youngstown.”

The ability of the district’s teachers and staff to get the vaccine also will be added to Jenning’s calculation in determining when the district will reopen its buildings to students.

“We want our scholars back in schools, but we also want everyone to be safe,” he said. “I’m optimistic we will return. We want our scholars in-person, because we believe it is the best place to learn. We want our seniors to have the experiences of their graduation year.”

The district is prepared to reopen its buildings once leadership feels it is safe.

“We’ve purchased and installed sanitation stations, have PPE (personal protective equipment), and other equipment needed for reopening,” Jennings said “We have done what is needed to do a hybrid system, fully reopen in-person or remain fully remote.”

Jennings emphasized the decision to have students return to in-person learning will be based on science and not influenced by other factors. “We don’t know the repercussions of the holiday season on the virus spread,” he said.

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said school districts such as Youngstown that have safety concerns should be prioritized.

“We think it is really important to prioritize the needs of students of color in high poverty districts,” he said. “If a district is going to prioritize safety, they should be on the top of the list for vaccinations. Let’s not punish them for not reopening their buildings for in-person education by not providing the vaccine to their employees. It should not be the goal of using the vaccine as a carrot and the stick.”

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