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Fall school reopening plan: Ohio superintendent wary of full August return

Ohio’s state superintendent discussed an early draft of a 2020-21 school reopening plan Tuesday, saying with the exception of any formal orders from the state health department, local K-12 schools will make their own decisions on how to reopen in the fall.

Superintendent Paolo DeMaria told the state school board that the Ohio Department of Education’s role is not to advocate for a particular model, but to present resources for a variety of models, so local school boards, superintendents and others can choose the approach that works best for their community.

The solution for a small rural district with poor broadband internet access and very few coronavirus cases might be very different from the path for a large district that faced a major outbreak and whose families can get online easily.

The 12-page draft Reset & Restart Planning Guide — which is clearly labeled as still under discussion — urges schools to consider four key categories. They are health and safety, educational plans, social-emotional health concerns, and operational issues such as busing, food service and extracurriculars.

The health and safety section, in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Health, encourages distance learning where possible, but lays out a long list of “daily precautions” for schools welcoming students.

That includes physical distancing, use of face masks, frequent cleaning and sanitizing, and firm attendance policies related to coronavirus symptoms — with students and staff told to take their temperatures each day before school.

Even with those steps, the plan says a phased return to in-school activities “will lead to some new COVID-19 infections, which is to be expected. The goal is to keep the number of COVID-19 cases below the hospital/health system’s capacity to handle them.”

DeMaria repeated his April opinion that Ohio is extremely unlikely to be fully back to normal school in August, citing the fear factor of some parents and students who are unwilling to return to crowded schools if a vaccine is not available.

But other parents are eager for their children to return, citing minimal coronavirus impacts on children and the parents’ need to go to work and earn money, rather than staying home with young children.

That puts the schools in a tough position, as they try to plan for some mix of in-person, online or blended school models.

Veteran state board member Stephanie Dodd said the blended approach is difficult, as teachers have to create separate online and in-person lesson plans. She described this spring’s online learning as “a band-aid,” saying if that model will remain in the fall, schools need better planning and training this summer.

Board member Meryl Johnson said if schools continue with at-home learning in the fall, the state needs to establish and explain to parents some minimum quality standard of what schools are expected to provide in online education.

Johnson, Steve Dackin and other board members said that’s crucial because online access and education have not been equitable from district to district. DeMaria agreed that he’d heard a wide range of satisfied and frustrated responses from parents about schools’ efforts this spring.

He emphasized that on the whole, he was pleased with Ohio schools’ efforts to quickly implement at-home learning systems that they were not really prepared for.

On the educational front, the state’s draft plan says schools will have to work hard to figure out where students stand, as some may have fallen behind during the past two months. Personalized approaches will be important, as will good training for educators.

DeMaria said there is a long list of 20-plus issues the legislature will have to address as online learning continues — testing and graduation requirements, what to do with the state report card, rules on attendance and truancy, teacher evaluation and more.

But wherever lawmakers land on those issues, DeMaria said more than ever before, schools in 20-21 will have to be ready to make quick changes as the circumstances require.

“We all crave certainty. … We can speculate, but the unfortunate reality is that how things actually play out can be widely different,” DeMaria said. “We don’t know much about this virus and what’s it going to look like during the summer. … The expectation is that this year is going to be very challenging, and may require us to twist and turn down different paths, on a dime.”

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