Olentangy Schools leaders veer toward hybrid start to year

JIM FISCHER
editorial@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

Olentangy Schools’ July 28 board meeting began with a plea and ended with another one.

Board president Mindy Patrick kicked off the meeting by imploring residents to use discretion and empathy in response to the district’s updated back-to-school plan.

Board member Julie Wagner Feasel wrapped up the gathering by asking for families’ patience as the details of that plan continue to be worked out.

In between, the board approved the One Olentangy: Back Together 2020 Plan, a strategy modified from the one initially released July 13.

The title seemed wishful thinking, given the zeal and contentiousness with which the issue has been discussed and debated among residents online and in person.

Online and in-person is, in fact, how students will return to school in the fall, per the plan – provided Delaware County remains at either Level 2 or 3 (orange or red) in Gov. Mike DeWine’s color-coded, county-by-county Public Health Advisory System, designed to assess the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

In a change from the earlier plan, the district will operate a hybrid attendance model at both Levels 2 and 3.

Superintendent Mark Raiff suggested he expects that’s where the county will be, at least based on current available information.

“We’ll start (the school year) hybrid,” Raiff told board members. “It will give us an opportunity to do social distance at 6 feet and have smaller (student/teacher) ratios. The hybrid learning model offers the best consistency for our students and staff.”

This is, Raiff said, because the county’s risk level has been and projects to be fluid between those two levels.

Indeed, in DeWine’s July 30 update, Delaware County had moved from red to orange, reversing a change from two weeks prior.

Attendance will alternate – 50% of students in-school and 50% at home every day – under the hybrid model. Student population will be divided alphabetically, A-K and L-Z, with allowances for households with different last names to be kept together.

Unchanged from the earlier plan is daily, in-person attendance at Level 1 and fully virtual attendance at Level 4.

Should the district move to virtual attendance, “all classes available in other models will translate and class placements will stay consistent,” said Jack Fette, the district’s chief academic officer. “Classes will be modified for the online environment, but we will provide all services virtually.”

“Our plan is comprehensive for a variety of options, from every day in person to distance learning,” Raiff said after the meeting. “The plan we shared at the board of education meeting on Tuesday allows us to provide options and continue to refine as our environment evolves.”

The district has not committed to any specific length for any attendance model to start the school year, said district spokeswoman Amanda Beeman. Any changes to the attendance plan based on risk levels will be announced late in a week to begin the next Monday, she said.

Raiff also clarified that the state’s color-coded chart will be one of several data points the district will use to determine any changes to the attendance model. He said the district will not “automatically move from one level to another” based on the state’s risk-level announcement.

“Olentangy Schools will continue to follow recommendations from the Ohio Department of Health, the Delaware General Health District and Olentangy’s curriculum and academic experts,” Beeman added.

Another significant change from the earlier plan is the option to select committed distance learning for just the first semester. The earlier plan required a full-year commitment.

The fully online option is separate from the in-person option, though all students would be assigned an Olentangy teacher and would be grouped with other students from their school as much as possible.

“Students will be interacting in real time with a teacher and a group of classmates,” Fette said. “All student work will be completed on the computer and students can expect to be engaging with teachers over a typical work/school day.

“We’re not just placing kids in an online program; we are assigning kids an Olentangy teacher,” he said. “It will be an authentic, albeit new, Olentangy experience.”

However, the nature of the fully online learning program will mean certain co-curricular offerings will not be available to students selecting this option, Beeman said.

Fette told board members the district is working with some online instruction partners to try to fill in gaps in some curriculum areas, but said it’s likely some courses will just not be able to be offered in the distance-learning model.

Families had until Aug. 2 to make their selection for committed distance learning. This was to allow as much time as possible for teachers and students to be assigned before the start of school Aug. 31, Fette said.

The district also has identified teachers interested in the online learning model and will take that into account when making staffing decisions, Fette said.

The district has set Aug. 14 as a deadline to let teachers know where and how they will be teaching.

As of July 28, about 2,000 students had signed up for committed distance learning, Fette told board members.

Detailed plans for preschool, transportation, food service and custodial operations also were shared with the board.

editorial@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNews