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Columbus City Schools Cautiously Returning Some Students To Classrooms Monday

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 City Schools students from pre-K through 3rd grade return to classes part-time beginning next Monday, February 1. The district had to delay reopening plans before due to rising coronavirus caess, but this time, school officials say they are ready to go.

Under the reopening plans, students will be split into two cohorts, with one group attending in-person Monday and Tuesday while the other comes to class Thursday and Friday. On Wednesdays, school staff will clean facilities.

Columbus City Schoolboard President Jennifer Adair says they’re following the lead of local health authorities, and the district is fully prepared for the transition.

“If anyone goes out to Target even with a mask on, you’re probably having a greater risk of getting COVID than coming into a classroom,” Adair says. “We have controlled spaces with lots of mitigation in place and the health experts are telling us that we are ready to go and we have safe environments. So we’re excited.”

Meanwhile, Columbus City Schools teachers are among the more than 90,000 K-12 teachers and staff eligible for COVID-19 vaccines under the next phase of Ohio’s rollout. Beginning February 1, “employees who are necessary to the operation of in-person instruction,” will be eligible to receive shots according to the DeWine administration. The move affects numerous other schools and districts around the state.

Fourth and fifth graders in the district will return to classrooms February 8, but middle school and high school students will stay remote until the district can get more transportation. Adair says that’s because older kids spend much more time on buses—in some cases, three times the recommended maximum of 15 minutes.

“So we have to have them further apart, which means we can put less students on a bus, and with the amount of buses we have and the requirements by state law to work with our charter and non-public partners, we don’t have enough transportation for our older kids,” she says.

The move to hybrid learning will bring Columbus City Schools in line with districts around the county. According to the latest Ohio Department of Education data, just two of the 15 other districts in Franklin County were listed as "fully remote." Reached by phone Monday, both districts – Reynoldsburg and Groveport Madison – confirmed they recently shifted to a hybrid model.

The Columbus Education Association, the union representing local teachers and staffers, contends members want to be in classrooms too, but that remote learning remains the safest option. While CEA president John Coneglio expects classes to resume Monday, he says their message hasn’t changed.

“We want to be in front of our kids, there’s no doubt about it, but you know safe as possible," Coneglio says. "And I tell the teachers and I’ll tell everybody this, when the district makes us return, it’s safety first, teaching second."

Coneglio also says the hybrid approach, cycling between half the class in person and the other half at home, means students will get less face-to-face interaction with their teachers.

“What parents need to understand is when we’re teaching their kids remote, they’re going to have more facetime in the remote model than they will have in, with their teachers, than they will have in the hybrid model,” Coneglio says.

After the string of false starts and shifting plans last year, Columbus superintendent Talisa Dixon rolled out a plan for weekly updates over Zoom to keep parents informed about reopening plans. Last week, as reopening drew near, Dixon expressed excitement.

“I’m just happy that we’re able to get our students back at least some of the time,” Dixon said. “There are some parent who are reluctant, but there are so many more parents that are saying we are ready, we’ve been ready.”

Dixon repeatedly urged parents who remain skeptical to consider the district’s virtual academy, which is completely remote and self-paced.

Despite the delays and the added hoops to jump through, Dixon couldn’t help but find a silver lining.

“Actually, we have two first days,” she said with a smile, noting the separate cohorts. “So I plan to be at the bus stop on both days, and visiting the classrooms, and really excited about this opportunity, even though we know it’s different, and it’s going to be different.”

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.