Olentangy Schools parents, students share thoughts on returning to class full time

Jim Fischer
ThisWeek
Custodian Ed Strayer cleans lunch tables at Olentangy Berlin High School recently. Olentangy Schools is expected to return to a full-time, in-person learning model March 15.

The Olentangy Schools administration’s decision to return to full-time in-person classes starting March 15 generated a bit of a Goldilocks reaction from the community -- some say it’s too soon, some think it’s not soon enough and others suggest it’s just right.

Despite the district’s in-person attendance model having three levels -- fully in-school, fully remote and hybrid models -- the district has been operating in the hybrid model almost exclusively since the start of the school year.

Superintendent Mark Raiff made the announcement about a full-time in-person return during the Feb. 11 school board meeting, citing promising trends in the slowing spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and the availability of vaccines to staff as the primary factors.

“We recognize that in-person learning has not been associated with community spread. But the reason we waited until staff was vaccinated was because staff transmission was of greatest concern,” Raiff told board members during their Feb. 25 meeting.

Berlin High School junior Cameron Pack said she’s glad to be returning to full in-person classes, despite some concerns over how that’s going to look and feel.

“I’m a little nervous to see how it’s going to work in the classroom,” Pack said. “Doubling the number of students makes me nervous. A couple of my classes already have 20 people in hybrid, so how are they going to allow for us to keep a distance? On the other hand, some of my classes are very small.

“I think hybrid has been a struggle for me, though, and that I will benefit from more face-to-face with my teachers. I’m also excited to see everyone again,” she said.

Jordan Acer has four school-age children, a sixth-grader at Hyatts Middle School and three students at Liberty Tree Elementary School, and said he is glad to see them returning to school full time.

“Our kids were excited when we told them. They are ready to go back to school,” he said. “Our preference would always be for as much in-person learning as possible, and we would have liked to see (this decision) made earlier, but we have appreciated the consistency of the hybrid model. Superintendent Raiff has done a good job being consistent with all of this.”

Ashley Barnhill, parent to five children, including four between 6 and 14 years old at Liberty Tree, Hyatts and Berlin High School, concurred.

“We’d have been OK with the decision if it had been made earlier but thankful Olentangy made the decision to do hybrid and stick with it (instead of going online). That consistency has been helpful,” she said.

Because her children are not native English-speakers, they have had some added struggles with online learning and have missed out on some benefit of learning language through interaction and immersion, she said.

“My husband and I also felt like more time with their peers would help with socializing,” she said. “The kids were excited (by the announcement). They love going to school.”

Jessica Ham said being in school five days a week definitely would help her son, Ayden, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Hyatts. His grades have suffered, she said, both at the end of last year in full remote and this year in hybrid.

“I won’t be as distracted as I am online,” Ayden said. “And I’m looking forward to the better socialization, too.”

“He will do so much better, and they’re both missing out on so much,” Jessica Ham said, citing the impact of the challenges faced by her daughter, a 16-year-old who splits time between the Delaware Area Career Center and the district’s OASIS program.

Dorothy Ashford also has a daughter in OASIS who is a senior at Olentangy High School. She said it’s been difficult for her and for her 14-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum and has been diagnosed with ADHD.

“The teachers and counselors at Olentangy (High School) and at Shanahan (Middle School) have been amazing, very supportive to my kids,” she said. “But being in school is a big part of his socialization experience.”

Ashford said she believes students should have been in school five days a week from the start of the school year.

“I vehemently disagree with the approach our district has taken in staying closed for so long,” she said. “I've been pro-back-to-school-five-days-a-week since the beginning of the school year, and I don’t feel the district ever evolved as more and more facts came out about the risks of COVID,” Ashford said.

Chris Warner, whose daughter is a sophomore at Berlin High School, is a bit more apprehensive.

“My stomach did a flip (when we heard the announcement),” Warner said. “I’m not sure we were completely ready (to return to full-time classes), but we know Olentangy is doing some good things to keep the kids safe. It’s going to be a challenge to have every kid back together, but the district is up to the task. My comfort level is going up.”

Warner said her daughter has been doing well with the hybrid schedule, handling the at-home days by staying on a schedule.

Nate Beasley said he’s done well with hybrid school but looks forward to returning to five days a week.

“Thought I might go to the end of the school year (in hybrid), so I was a little surprised, but I’m not concerned,” the 16-year-old Liberty High School student said. “I think there will be a little less stress overall because I feel like we’ve sometimes tried to get so much more done on the days we’re in school and they’ve tried to squeeze more work in.

“I’m looking forward to seeing more of my friends, too. Probably would have been OK if they’d have decided to go back (to five days a week) sooner,” he said.

During the Feb. 25 school board meeting, Raiff highlighted some of the district’s health and safety guidelines and how those will change, if at all, starting March 15.

“Students will be distanced 3 or more feet apart whenever possible, with layered mitigation,” he said. “This layered mitigation includes the use of routine handwashing, face masks, desk shields and sneeze guards and increased disinfecting and sanitizing.”

Sanitizing by custodians will be increased to address additional touch points in daily attendance, district spokesperson Amanda Beeman told ThisWeek. These include lockers in buildings that use them and the use of additional desks when possible, she said.

Some guidelines will be implemented at the building level, allowing each principal to make some decisions based on building layout and other special circumstances, Raiff said. All guidelines will be reviewed by the Delaware Public Health District, he said. 

Starting five-day-a-week school March 15 means two full weeks of classes before spring break.

Raiff said this will provide an opportunity to see what’s working and allow a week over spring break to make any needed adjustments.  

“We’ve been comfortable with the measures that are in place and have no real concerns moving forward,” Jessica Ham said.

“They’ve done a good job so far keeping everyone safe, and most people are good with following the guidelines,” Cameron Pack said.

“There haven’t been any issues so far, and I think what they’re doing should be good even with everyone back,” Nate Beasley said.

“Olentangy has exceeded my expectations (with regard to keeping students safe) so far,” Jordan Acer said.

“We’ve been impressed with the health and safety measures in place, and we’re thankful they’re doing what they need to do so our kids can go back, and to go above and beyond to make more people feel comfortable,” Ashley Barnhill said.

“My only fear at this point is that something will happen to be a reason to go back (to hybrid),” Dorothy Ashford said.

Raiff told board members he expects spring sports will go on as planned and that the district continues to discuss other activities and programs, including proms and graduations.

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