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Columbus K-12 Schools Can Resume In-Person Classes, City Health Commissioner Says

Clinton Elementary school was closed when COVID-19 hit in March.
Ryan Hitchcock
WOSU Public Media
Clinton Elementary school was closed when COVID-19 hit in March.

Columbus Public Health says that with the proper protocols, schools can safely host students in their classrooms this fall.

Columbus Health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts released new recommendations for in-person learning on Thursday afternoon. They include creating seating charts for classrooms and buses that allow for six feet of distance between students at all times, and making masks mandatory for everyone but those under the age of 6.

"What I shared with the schools in mid-July was, I wouldn't feel comfortable with kids returning to the classroom until we had seen four consecutive weeks of a downward trend in cases," Roberts says. 

Now, that milestone has been met.

"When I saw from the data that we were likely going to go from a level three or 'red' county to a level 2, an 'orange' county, I was feeling very comfortable with the fact that our kids could return to school if our school districts were ready and able to follow the state guidelines," Roberts says.

Currently, Columbus City Schools plans to hold classes entirely online for all grades through the end of October.

However, Columbus Public Health now recommends the district move to a hybrid model, similar to the one the district originally proposed in June. Under such a plan, half the students would come into school half the time, then switch to remote learning while the second half of students have in-person classes. That allows for the six-foot social distancing Roberts calls imperative.

Other Central Ohio districts, such as Hilliard City Schools, are already pursuing a hybrid learning schedule.

Still, even with those guidelines, there are a lot of unknowns. Schools shut down in March, during the first few weeks of the pandemic, and most haven’t been open since. It’s possible that schools re-opening could lead to a spike in cases.

“There’s obviously a chance of that happening, but we have mitigation efforts in place today that we didn’t have in March," Roberts says. "For example, wearing masks. We weren’t wearing masks in March."

Gov. Mike DeWine issued a public health order at the beginning of August that requires all students in grades K-12 to wear masks while in schools, with some exceptions. And a statewide order requiring face masks in public spaces also remains in place.

While Columbus City Schools will restart classes online on September 8, the district announced Thursday that sports and other in-person extracurriculars are allowed to resume on Saturday. That gives Roberts some pause.

“Sports are risky, and I definitely have concerns about sports, but I understand the need for kids to be active,” she says.

Ultimately, Roberts says it’s the same difficult balancing act families have been struggling with for nearly six months.

“We as a community, as parents, as families, we have to decide: What activities are most important for our children and our families to stay involved with, to have some sense of normalcy?” Roberts says.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.