CLEVELAND (WJW) — School districts face tough decisions as some try to remain open for in-person learning even as coronavirus cases surge across Ohio.
Several local school districts are reexamining initial reopening plans that called for remote learning under a red, level three, county designation in the state’s color-coded alert system.
Cuyahoga County is currently at level three and at risk for advancing to purple, level four.
Yet, the Shaker Heights City School District has opted to move forward with plans to transition from remote to in-person instruction, after a brief pause to its reopening timeline.
Superintendent Dr. David Glasner said remote learning is not serving the needs of all students. More than 70 percent of families have opted for on-site learning, according to Glasner.
“We still have a significant number of students that we are not meeting all of their needs right now,” Glasner said.
He noted public health officials’ findings of low rates of virus transmission in school settings and said the district has learned from others that have already reopened.
“We think we have the tools in place and structure in place to move forward with on-site learning, and we know there are students who really need that additional support,” he said.
After the state placed Cuyahoga County at level three, the North Royalton City Schools announced the district will transition to fully remote learning beginning Tuesday, as stipulated by its previously developed reopening plan.
“Our ultimate goal is to safely bring students back in school five days a week,” superintendent Greg Gurka said in a letter to parents. “In the coming weeks, we will be working to adjust our plan to one that can reflect the conditions in our city, county and region and not be completely tied to the colored level system.”
The Painesville City Local School District also automatically shifted to virtual learning under its reopening plan as Lake County reached level three Thursday.
Superintendent Dr. Josh Englehart said the school board planned to meet Friday night to revise that plan and he would recommend a return to in-person instruction starting next week.
“A school closure is incredibly disruptive to our families and I’m very, very sensitive to that,” Englehart said. “For a lot of our families, it’s not just an inconvenience, it impacts their ability to earn.”
The district has had just three coronavirus cases since the first day of school about two months ago, according to Englehart.
“It is, in fact, possible to operate schools even with a county red designation, without compromising safety,” Englehart said.
As school districts took steps to remain open, they were grappling with the possibility of a worsening spread of COVID-19 in their communities that could lead to a level four designation.
“That is anticipated to be a much more clear indicator that we would be compromising safety if we were open,” Englehart said.
Glasner said Shaker Heights has not yet determined what would happen under a level four designation.
“That is a question I know many districts are having right now, what happens if the county goes to level 4, purple?” Glasner said.
Guidance to schools provided last month by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health states schools are “strongly encouraged” to go fully virtual at level four.
However – right now – the decision remains up to each district.
The Ohio Education Association, the union representing 122,000 Ohio educators, this week called for a state mandate requiring remote learning in level three and four counties.
Governor Mike DeWine told reporters Friday that the state’s alert system is designed to inform local school leaders about what’s happening in their counties as they make decisions. A level four designation is not tied to any orders or mandates, DeWine said.
“We’ve left it to the local districts to make this decision,” DeWine said at a coronavirus briefing Thursday. “Part of my job, I think, is to give the local community as much information as I can.”
Still some school leaders said more guidance from the state is needed, as they’re left to make tough decisions regarding public health.
“It’s good to have some autonomy at the district level to be able to make those judgments,” Englehart said. “But, I would say overall we could definitely use some more clear guidance from those departments.”
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