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Coronavirus In Ohio: School Districts Make Pandemic Preparations For Fall

Avery Elementary School in Hilliard on May 11, 2020.
Ryan Hitchcock
Avery Elementary School in Hilliard on May 11, 2020.

Ohio's more than 600 school districts are waiting for the Department of Education to release its COVID-19 guidance on how to operate in the new school year. But with the first day of classes less than two months away, many districts are already making their own plans.

The Reynoldsburg City School District, east of Columbus, has about 7,800 students. Superintendent Melvin Brown says like most districts, they're planning for as many scenarios as possible for the fall.

Brown predicts three main choices: a plan for having every student back in class; a plan to be all virtual; or what's the most likely case, a hybrid of the two.

"A lot of people are looking for answers and it's difficult to give a definitive answer when we don’t have all of those guidelines and parameters we're already set up to adjust to, so patience is important here," Brown says.

Those guidelines Brown is referring to are the protocols Ohio is expected to enforce as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Mike DeWine says he plans to lay out more details at a press conference Thursday.

Districts have a lot of questions: Will there be smaller classroom ratios, or mandatory distance between desks? Will students be required to wear masks? Will schools be required to take student temperatures?

On a statewide teleconference with Ohio's eight large urban districts, Akron Public Schools superintendent David James said they've tried to run down the possible prices of certain mandates for his 20,400 students, which can add millions of dollars in costs.

"There are lots of expenses that we never envisioned when this thing started, but a lot of those things are going to impact how we envision our start of school," James says.

DeWine, who was among the first governors in the country to shut down schools in the spring, stresses that Ohio's rules will allow flexibility for districts, from the large urban to the small rural.

"The science doesn't change. The virus is still with us," DeWine says. "I trust that the schools are going to do the best they can to protect not only the students but also protect the teachers, custodians, people in the front office, to protect anybody who works in that building. That's the goal."

Many districts are sending out surveys to families to learn more about their concerns. 

Kadee Anstadt, superintendent of Washington Local Schools just north of Toledo, believes the challenges of abruptly shutting down in-person classes in March taught districts a lot about distance learning. Those lessons  can be used going into this new school year.

"Do we leverage this or do we let it revert? Do we keep that rubberband stretched or do we let it go back? We can't let it go back, because what's good for kids is that we leverage what we learned here and make our classrooms better, more accessible," Anstadt explains. "If a student's dad get diagnosed with COVID this year and they have to stay out for 14 days, we can't let that student miss 14 days of instruction, we just can't."

When it comes to safety, superintendents aren’t just worried about COVID-19. Anstadt says there's physical safety, but also emotional and cultural safety, especially during anti-racism demonstrations. 

"Our biggest contention is that we need to follow the science to make determinations about what this is going to look like," says Brown about Reynoldsburg City Schools. "Popular sentiment isn't really what the driving force should be. We should be a position where we can make decisions that are going to be the best for kids and maintain safety while still providing a quality educational program."

DeWine did hint at one challenge in particular: transportation. School buses travel 160 million miles a year. Administrators are trying to make plans for how to bus students to school if physical distance or lower rider ratios are required.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.