Gahanna-Jefferson sets two options for 2020-21 school year, delays start

MARLA K. KUHLMAN
mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

The Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools board has delayed the start of school from Aug. 12 to Aug. 24 so school staffers have more time to get ready.

The board originally approved a 2020-21 school calendar including the Aug. 12 start date, but made the change July 16.

The delay gives staff members more time to receive training on health and safety practices and prepare for potential emergencies and closures due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, board members said.

The change also reduces students' instruction time by eight days.

Jill Elliott, district assistant superintendent, said Ohio requires a certain number of instructional hours for the school year, and even with the delayed start the district would meet that requirement.

"Adjusting still allows us enough (hours)," she said. "We still have extra days to deal with calamity days."

District families were given a choice between distance learning or hybrid learning -- a rotation of in-person classroom and at-home learning -- for the 2020-21 school year.

Steve Barrett, district superintendent, said the selection made for each student is expected to remain in effect for the entire school year.

He said students who are immunocompromised or live with a family member who is immunocompromised, or families who do not feel comfortable with a return for face-to-face instruction might prefer the distance learning, all-online model.

The hybrid-learning model will follow a three-day, two-day rotation of classroom and at-home learning, splitting students into a blue group and a gold group.

Barrett said one group would report to their buildings for face-to-face instruction on Tuesdays, Thursdays and rotating Mondays.

The second group would report to their building on Wednesdays, Fridays and rotating Mondays.

On the days students are at home, Barrett said, learning would continue with activities and assignments provided by teachers.

Barrett said face coverings would be required for all staff and K-12 students throughout the buildings and on buses.

He said students are encouraged to bring their own face coverings, but masks would be available for students and staff who don't have their own.

The school board approved an agreement with Saneck International on July 16 for personal protective equipment at a cost not to exceed $46,121, to be paid from the general fund.

The decision

Barrett said the school restart plan was a difficult plan to build, and it was done with much deliberation.

A Fall Task Force -- a group of more than 90 teachers, counselors, support staff and administrators -- met virtually to consider options for the reopening of the schools in August, said Judy Hengstebeck, district communications coordinator.

Barrett said the district has worked closely with Franklin County Public Health with a goal of implementing a plan to allow the most face-to-face instruction possible.

Elliott said it has been a long, difficult process, with many perspectives that come into play.

"We've tried to be mindful of the components to create the best plan possible," she said.

Elliott said many other districts are using a third-party vendor for distance learning, but Gahanna is trying to have its own teachers provide the instruction.

The curriculum options have taken into consideration Ohio's pandemic code-level alerts system, she said.

As of July 22, Franklin County was at a Level 3, code red alert, indicating a very high exposure and spread.

If Franklin County is designated at a Level 4, color purple alert -- signifying severe exposure and spread of coronavirus -- the district would transition to a virtual all-distance learning model while school buildings are closed, she said.

If the county improves to Level 1 or Level 2, yellow and orange alert levels, respectively, Barrett said, families could opt out of their year-long commitment with the change considered at the semester break.

He said the district would work with Franklin County Public Health and follow its recommendations regarding protocols for individuals who test positive for the coronavirus.

"We'll have them check in with our nurses to have their temperatures taken and clearance from a doctor on letterhead," Barrett said. "It's important to monitor a child's health every day. Symptoms are fever, shortness of breath, body aches. As we build this plan, an incredible amount of work went into it."

Under a red-level alert, he said, the district can't be back full force with traditional school.

"That makes us sad," Barrett said. "We hope Franklin County can get to a level of orange or better so we can be in school and take necessary precautions."

Reactions

Prior to the start of the July 16 virtual meeting, board president Beryl Brown Piccolantonio read four comments submitted by district residents.

Gahanna resident Jane Messmer wrote in a June 16 letter that she is concerned for the safety of students and the community and urged the district to reopen on a completely virtual basis for all students this fall.

"Face to face, in-person, in-school plans can endanger students, teachers and staff," Messmer wrote. "The death of just one child or beloved teacher or staff member will hurt our school family forever."

Blacklick resident Laura Dranschak, a parent of five children ages 9 through 6 months, said she is a scientist and stated in a July 16 letter that she is working with companies and scientists on coronavirus treatments and vaccines every day.

"People talk about returning back to normal," Dranschak wrote. "I 100% agree that in-person school as we generally know it is the best for kids and teachers, honestly. Opening for in-person school is going to be anything but normal. I would challenge schools to start innovating. Stop thinking about how do we get back to 'normal' and focus on how do you educate the best given the circumstances."

In her professional opinion, Dranschak said, she feels strongly that schools should open with distance learning only.

While people will disagree on what school should look like this fall, she said there is one certain unifier.

"If a child dies and it could have been prevented if we had just waited, no matter what side the parent was on, the grief is the same," Dranschak said. "The same goes for staff."

Jennifer Chrysler, board vice president, said she has heard a wide range of emotions about returning to school.

"They're wide reaching," she said. "It's really hard to answer questions that we don't have a lot of answers to as a nation. ... I do encourage the community to give grace to administrators who are trying to navigate the path."

Barrett said the district's job is to provide students the best opportunity to learn that is possible.

"We're also an employer," he said. "We have teachers, bus drivers, custodians and they have families. It's hard to balance those things. For families, it's hard to decide when two parents work or for families who are separated."

Barrett said it feels "heartbreaking. ... This is the hardest thing I've ever had to be a part of."

Ballot issue

In other action July 16, board members unanimously approved a resolution to proceed with placing a three-part tax issue on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Barrett said the millage request includes a 4.93-mill bond issue and a 1.5-mill permanent-improvement levy, for a total of 6.43 mills.

He said the district also would request a 4.26-mill operating levy to hire additional staff to keep pace with the growing number of students entering the district, as well as additional costs related to the pandemic.

The levy will appear on the ballot with the bond and permanent improvement levy as a combined request of 10.69 mills.

If voters approve the measure, the issue would finance the construction of a new Lincoln High School at its current site and additions to other district buildings. It also would provide operating funds.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla