By Dan Yount
At the September 14 Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education meeting, board members made the decision to meet again on September 21 to re-examine the health data on the community before returning to classroom teaching in a blended learning model. Specifically, the board will review whether or not the Labor Day holiday had a negative impact on local health data regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
During the meeting on September 21, a decision will be made about continuing with distance learning or shifting to a model that includes in-person learning using a phased-in approach beginning September 28.
Board member Eve Bolton proposed that reopening contact learning should be phased in beginning with preschool and special needs classes and then transitioning up the grades.
Distance learning will continue for the time being.
Regarding athletics, this week, non-contact sports can return to full competition and contact sports can return to intra-district games. Next week, contact sports can return to full competition. A decision regarding spectators will be forthcoming.
For blended learning, if certain COVID-19 conditions are met, CPS students would be divided into two groups, each of which will attend in-person classes for two days every week (either Tuesday-Wednesday or Thursday-Friday) and on alternating Mondays. The remainder of the week’s lessons would be online.
District officials believe the two-group system will allow social distancing during in-person classes and prevent cross-contamination from one class to the next, according to Superintendent Laura Mitchell.
For the board to approve blended learning, Cincinnati would have to see a “sustained daily decline” in new COVID-19 cases over a two-week period and a positivity rate equal to or under 5%, and Hamilton County must be out of the “red” or “purple” alert zones on the state’s health advisory system, according to the proposal.
With the positivity rate in the city now under 5% and in the “orange” or second lowest zone, Mitchell came prepared, as the board had previously advised, with a blended learning plan to present to the board. However, among other concerns, board members agreed it would be best to wait and see the COVID impacts from social gatherings during the Labor Day weekend.
Mitchell noted eight of nine Centers for Disease Control recommendations for opening schools were moving down locally. Also, she added, the district is not seeing the virus spread in other districts that have reopened classrooms.
Mitchell also came prepared to continue with the distance learning program.
Board member Mike Moroski said he is leaning toward the virtual learning model with winter ahead and the coronavirus and flu season accompanying it. “I worry about sending a majority of Black students back into the buildings at this time, when 200,000 people in the country have died from coronavirus. He added the district couldn’t be compared demographically to neighboring districts.
School officials are also concerned about student losses with the distance learning or virtual schooling model that was adopted when schools in Ohio were closed last February. The district has lost contact with about 6,000 students from its former enrollment of 36,283 students. Mitchell said it is difficult to determine where those students have gone.
More than 2,500 people viewed the virtual board meeting, with 50 people speaking remotely.
Parent David Brenner said, “Everybody wants their kids back in school in better a learning environment. However, we are not COVID free, and it is not worthwhile to risk lives of students, teachers and families. Keep us safe and out until it is safe.”
But parent Nakeeshia (last name not given) said her children are not getting what they need with online learning, since there is a lack of communications and technology, which is making it stressful for the most vulnerable students.
City Councilwoman Betsy Sundermann agreed, saying virtual instruction is not adequate and “super confusing,’’ especially if both parents are working.
However, Craig Rosen said his children are expressing extreme anxiety about coming back to a school building, and they are getting good at remote learning.
Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, said it would be irresponsible at this point for CPS to contribute to spread of the virus by having students and teachers return the classroom. “You do not have enough data to make a decision today,’’ she said. “Teachers say they playing Russian roulette to return to a blended model.” She has said that about 40 percent of teachers surveyed indicated they have underlying health issues, which make then more vulnerable to coronavirus.
“Two of my grandchildren are doing well by learning online and have good relationships with their teachers. They are safe and not bringing germs home,’’ Sellers said.