South-Western City School District not yet ready for all-in return to school

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group
Joe Conley, head custodian at the South-Western City School District's Bolton Crossing Elementary School, uses a mister to disinfect the gym March 3. The custodial staff clean and disinfect the school daily, including cleaning every door handle twice a day. On Wednesdays, when students are not in the building, staff do a deep cleaning.

Although many central Ohio school districts have returned or soon plan to return to 100% face-to-face school for many students, the South-Western City School District will remain in its blended-learning model through at least April 2.

The earliest the district might return to full-fledged school is April 5, Superintendent Bill Wise said.

That is the date students are scheduled to return from spring break.

"We've been in conversation with the various health agencies, including Franklin County Public Health, Columbus Public Health and Ohio State University, to talk about the  CDC's (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) updated guidelines for school reopenings and the conditions in our community," he said.

The guidelines, which were released last month, recommended maintaining 6 feet of distancing inside school buildings where possible and having students wear facemasks and regularly wash and sanitize their hands.

The case rate in the South-Western district has been improving, Wise said.

At the beginning of March, the rate was about 230 per 100,000 population, a nearly 50% reduction since January, he said.

"That's a positive trend, but we're still not comfortable with considering a return to 'all-in' school," Wise said.

Bill Wise

Teachers and classified staff who opted to receive vaccinations completed the second round of the shots during the last week of February, he said.

Staff members are not required to tell the district whether they received the vaccinations, but a survey of employees indicated 83% of them, including teachers and classified staff, wanted to take the vaccinations, Wise said.

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The CDC's recommendations are that vaccinations should not be a condition for reopening schools but considered as an "additional layer of protection," he said.

"It won't be a major factor in deciding whether to return to 100% in-person school," Wise said.

A number of issues will need to be addressed before a return to all-in school is made, he said.

"One issue we'll have to address, particularly in grades 7-12, is how to safely have students transition from one class to another," Wise said. "We will have to figure out how to avoid too much crowding in the hallways."

One way might be to stagger times when students are dismissed, he said. Students coming from a study hall or going to an empty classroom could be let out a few minutes earlier than other students.

Another issue is to make sure students can maintain 6 feet of distance during lunch after they remove their masks to eat, Wise said.

"We will be able to use other spaces in our buildings if needed to ensure that distance during lunch," he said.

South-Western has been in its blended model since Jan. 5. 

Students at each school are divided into two groups, each attending in-person classes all day two days per week. 

Teachers also offer opportunities for online group or individual meetings and parent communications.

On the days they are not in school, students work independently at home on remote-learning assignments and activities.

Schools are empty of students on Wednesdays, when buildings are given a deep cleaning.  

Before the school year began, the school board approved remote, blended and in-person models and gave the superintendent the authority to determine when a switch from one model to another should be made.

The board will not need to vote on a switch back to all-in learning, Wise said.

Another update will be sent to families the week of March 22, he said.

The district might be ready to announce a plan to return to all-in school at that time, but it's too early to say for sure, Wise said.

"We'll be continuing to monitor the data and have conversations with our local public health officials," he said.

Grove City High School senior Brock Waits said although he has become accustomed to the blended- and remote-learning models over the past year, he can't wait for all-in school to return.

"Especially being a senior, it would be nice to be able to see all of my classmates one last time," he said.

It's also been a challenge taking classes virtually at home, Waits said.

"I'm more of a hands-on visual learner," he said. "It's just easier for me to learn by having the teacher in front of me instead of watching on a screen."

Being a senior makes a return to all-in school even more important, GCHS senior Lizzie Saur said.

"It probably wouldn't matter as much to me if I wasn't in my senior year, but I really would like to be back in school while I can," she said.

Blended learning has been challenging, but it has had some positive, as well, Saur said.

"At first, it was a little difficult, but it's helped me learn to manage my time and prepare, and I think that's going to help me in college," she said.

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