South-Western City Schools officials are nearing a determination of whether the new school year will involve students returning to the classroom, continuing to learn from home or a combination of the two in light of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

A review of three options under consideration is expected to be completed by the middle of July, Superintendent Bill Wise said June 26.

The recommendation might not be finalized in time for the school board's next regularly scheduled meeting Monday, July 13, he said, but it would be ready soon afterward. A "fine-tuning" of the plan would be completed by the end of July, Wise said.

South-Western's 2020-21 school year is scheduled to begin Aug. 26 for all students in grades 4 to 12.

The first day for K-3 students is to be staggered, with Aug. 26 the first day for students with last names beginning with A-G; Aug. 27 the first day for students with last names beginning with H-O; and Aug. 28 for students with last names beginning with P-Z. All K-3 students would attend school beginning Aug. 31.

Gov. Mike DeWine presented guidelines for Ohio's K-12 schools to reopen July 2, and those guidelines could affect the district's final decision, Wise said. DeWine's recommendations included having a testing strategy and social distancing.

"Certainly, if the 6-feet social-distancing requirement stays in place, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to have all students participating in face-to-face learning in their school buildings every day," he said.

Columbus City Schools would not fully reopen its buildings for at least the first half of the 2020-21 school year, according to a preliminary plan that district unveiled June 30.

Its students will not start classes until Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day, according to a calendar the Columbus school board approved that evening.

Under the preliminary plan, Columbus high school students would learn completely online while all other students would learn online three days and in classrooms for two days each week.

No matter what the guidelines are and what plan South-Western decides to implement, the district has to be ready to adjust its plan on a dime, Wise said.

The possibility of an overall resurgence of the coronavirus or an outbreak at an individual or limited number of school locations means districts need to be prepared to be flexible, he said.

The basic options for South-Western include starting the school year with all students still engaged in virtual learning, having all students returning to face-to-face instruction in the classroom or a hybrid plan of face-to-face and remote learning, Wise said.

"We could have 50% of students coming into the building on a given day," he said.

"They would spend a couple days in school each week and participate in virtual learning at home the other days."

No matter what overall plan is adopted, South-Western would offer families the option to keep their students out of school and engaged in remote learning only, Wise said.

"Even if we return to face-to-face learning, there will be a virtual option, although the number of students (able to take that option) would not be unlimited," he said.

As a first step toward a plan, the district collected data by conducting focus groups at schools, digging into state polling results and having conversations with parents, Wise said.

"The data shows that a majority of parents want to have their children returning to the classroom if possible," he said.

"But there is still a portion of the community and parents and students who are uncomfortable about returning to school, for a variety of reasons. A student may have a compromised immune system or other medical condition that makes them more at risk or the parents may just be uncomfortable with the idea of sending their child back to the school building."

A notice from Wise on the district's website, swcsd.us, said that as a result of the frequent changes and a tight timeline, it would rely primarily on electronic communication and suggested checking the site and following the district on Twitter at @SWCSD.

As South-Western prepares for the new school year, it is conducting online summer-school classes for high school juniors and seniors and for English Learner students across all grade levels.

The sessions began June 8 and will continue through July 31, said Brad Faust, South-Western's assistant superintendent of curriculum.

About 30 juniors and seniors are taking up to two credit recovery courses through the summer-school program, he said.

About 400 English Learner students are taking classes to help develop and improve their reading and writing skills, said Ed Kennedy, South-Western's coordinator of EL services.

"The majority of the students are in grades K-6, but we have some middle school and high school students participating, too," he said.

Twenty-four South-Western teachers are leading the program this summer, Kennedy said.

Students are engaged in the class for about two hours each day, he said.

They participate in small reading groups for 20 to 25 minutes two or three times a week with teachers and spend other time engaged in activities relating to reading and writing via online platforms, including i-Ready and Rosetta Stone, Kennedy said.

The Columbus Dispatch reporter Alissa Widman Neese contributed to this story.

afroman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekAfroman