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DeWine Says Columbus Schools Would Break Agreement If All Students Don't Return To Class

Columbus Board of Education building on April 15, 2020.
David Holm

Gov. Mike DeWine says Columbus City Schools would be breaking a deal with the state if they don’t have middle and high school students back in classrooms, at least part-time, by March 1.

“We spelled this out. I mean it was just spelled out very, very clearly in a document that we required each school in the state of Ohio to sign,” DeWine said in his Tuesday coronavirus press briefing.

Columbus, like nearly every other district in Ohio, agreed to return all students back to some in-person learning in order to give teachers and school employees early access to coronavirus vaccines.

“If the school is not going to have every student back fully in-person or hybrid by March 1, then they’re breaking the agreement,” DeWine said after a reporter asked if Columbus would be breaking the agreement.

Columbus City Schools started a hybrid modelthis month for pre-K through 5th graders that has students in physical classrooms two days a week. The district has not brought middle and high schooler students into classrooms, however, and has not released an expected date for doing so.

“We continue to work on plans to bring back the remainder of our students in grades 6-12, but that does not come without significant challenges, namely transportation capacity and continuity of classroom staff coverage,” reads a statement issued by the district Tuesday evening. “We have discussed our transportation barriers with the Governor’s Office and outlined the challenges to safely transport all CCS, charter, and non-public students across the city while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.”

Since closing last March, the district has spent about $15 million in federal CARES Act funding, which went to things like personal protective equipment and broadband for students needing internet access. The district purchased about 1.6 million masks for students and teachers, and each building is stocked with a 90-day supply of PPE.

Even with increased precautions, in-person classes during a pandemic still increase the risk of spreading coronavirus. John Coneglio, president of the Columbus Education Association, told WOSU last week that he hasn’t heard many teacher concerns about the return to the classroom, but he anticipates problems could occur down the road.

“Everybody’s on top of it right now,” Coneglio said. “What does three weeks look like from now? What does six weeks, what does the rest of the year look like in making sure that all those health and safety protocols are followed?”

In a statement Wednesday, Coneglio said that the DeWine administration needs to work with Columbus City Schools to address the particular funding and transportation barriers preventing all students from returning safely.

"To make this possible, we fully expect him to work with the Ohio Department of Education to waive the outrageous requirement that Columbus City Schools be responsible for transporting charter and non-public students, our single largest barrier to full hybrid learning," Conegelio wrote. "We also eagerly await the Governor's support of the Fair School Funding Plan passed with bipartisan support in the Ohio House. With the Governor's support of these measures and a fully vaccinated staff, we can look forward to a safe reopening at all grade levels."

Faced with a governor who appears intent on holding school districts to a coronavirus vaccine agreement, Columbus City School leaders appear just as set on not being able to live up to the deal.<--break->

Gov. Mike DeWine this week specifically addressed the state's largest district, which has so far only brought elementary students back into physical classrooms, but not most middle and high school students.

“If the school is not going to have every student back fully in-person or hybrid by March 1, then they’re breaking the agreement,” DeWine said Tuesday in response to a reporter question.

Columbus, like nearly every other district in Ohio, agreed to have all students back in classroom full-time or in a hybrid model by March 1 in order to give teachers and school employees early access to coronavirus vaccines. Starting in early February, grades K-5 were divided in half, with each group attending in-person classes for two days and staying remote the other three.

Grades 6-12, however, remain entirely remote, just as they've been for almost a year. And the district currently has no timeline for when they'll return to classrooms.

Steven McElroy, executive director of business and operations in the district’s transportation office, says they just don’t have the capacity to bus middle and high school students right now.

“Currently, we have the capacity to route our elementary students, our complex needs students, our career tech students, and we also transport charter and non-public students to school as well,” McElroy says.

Columbus City Schools covers about 51,000 students in 109 schools. But under Ohio law, Columbus City Schools must provide transportation for all eligible students in its district – including those who attend private, charter or parochial schools instead of public ones.

This situation prompted a number of Columbus residents to ask WOSU's Curious Cbus series what the district is doing to fix this problem.

When asked how they plan to meet the state's March 1 deadline, McElroy responded, “I continue to follow our superintendent’s direction, and again we’re working diligently to try to find other means of transporting students to school.

McElroy says their busing capacity has been drastically reduced by social distancing guidelines from Columbus Public Health. McElroy says they’re now limited to one student per bus seat, whereas buses used to be able to hold up to three students per seat.

The Columbus Education Association, the union for Columbus teachers, responded to DeWine’s comments about Columbus with a statement calling the requirement to bus charter and private school students “outrageous." CEA president John Coneglio said it’s the district's largest barrier to full hybrid learning.

McElroy declined to comment on whether the state should waive the requirement to bus all students who live in the district.

“I really don’t care to comment on that," McElroy said. "My role is to transport students to school, and we love that role. We love to support all students within Columbus, so that will continue to be my focus."

McElroy says he's not sure if there's a way for Columbus City Schools to resolve its conflict with the state before March 1.

“Again, we’re working diligently to see what we can do from a transportation perspective," he said.

What lingering questions do you have about COVID-19 and Ohio's response? Ask below and WOSU may report the answer for a future story.