Pickerington Schools to go to in-person classes four days a week Nov. 16

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Teachers and members of the Pickerington Education Association rally outside the Pickerington Schools office prior to the school board's meeting Oct. 12.

Amid concerns from the district’s teachers’ union, Pickerington Schools officials plan to return students to in-person classes four days a week beginning Nov. 16.

The Pickerington Schools board voted 4-1 Oct. 12 to return students to in-person classes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays beginning Nov. 16.

Under the “phase-in” plan, Superintendent Chris Briggs said students would take classes virtually on Wednesdays, which would ensure buildings receive an extra cleaning in addition to the daily cleaning when students are in the building.

“The Flexible Learning Plan 2.0, our ultimate goal from the very beginning, was to transition students back to the Green model (all students expected to attend school),” Briggs said. “We all want the same thing.

“Students’ and families’ mental health and well-being is a consideration in this decision, as well as the equity in access to resources. We do have families who ... are struggling. Whether Virtual Learning Academy or hybrid level, it is a challenge for those families.”  

Since school began Aug. 31, the district has operated under a “hybrid” model in which about half the students to attend in-person classes on a rotating "cohort" schedule. One cohort attends in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other attends Thursdays and Fridays.

Additionally, the district gave parents and students the option of taking all classes virtually through its Virtual Learning Academy. Officials said about 20% of the district’s 10,600 students are enrolled in the VLA.

When the district transitions to in-person classes four days a week, VLA students in grades K-6 could opt to return to in-person classes.

Students in grades 7-12 will continue to take classes online through at least the end of the first semester. At that point, they will be given the option of returning to in-person classes if space in classrooms permits.

The transition plan was met with opposition from the Pickerington Education Association, which represents 685 Pickerington Schools teachers, nurses, guidance counselors, media specialists and special services providers.

In addition to rallying outside the district office before the board’s meeting, PEA President Heather Tinsley read a statement to board members during the public comment portion of the meeting, which was held via teleconference.

“Teachers want nothing more than to have all our students back in the classroom on a regular schedule, but teacher and student safety must be the top priority,” she said. “Currently, there are more questions than answers when addressing COVID-19 protocols.”

Tinsley questioned whether the district had adequate data to support an increase in in-person classes and said the district’s plan to provide teachers with medical-grade face coverings would eliminate the requirement for contact tracing among teachers.

“According to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Interim Guidance for Case Investigation and Contact Tracing in K12 Schools (updated Sept. 24), case investigation and contact tracing are essential interventions in a successful response to COVID-19 in K-12 schools,” she said. “As schools resume in-person learning, it should be considered a crucial strategy to reduce further transmission once a case is identified.”

Tinsley said teachers “are concerned about the substantial risk of (coronavirus) exposure for students, families, teachers, staff and the impact on the community,” particularly because the return of roughly 80% of students to buildings would make social distancing difficult.

Additionally, she said, teachers and parents are frustrated by “the district’s lack of communication” and maintained teachers, building administrators and community members had “no say” in the recommendation to increase in-person class days.  

“The Pickerington Education Association wants a safe return for our students, teachers, and families,” she said. “We insist on transparency and prompt communication from the board.”

Briggs countered by saying all principals in the district provided input on the plan.

While he acknowledged the district won’t be able to maintain 6 feet of social distance once students are moved to the new schedule, Briggs said students and staff will be required to wear masks inside buildings and the district will follow guidelines set for by the CDC.

He also said that by starting four-day, in-person classes Nov. 16, the district will ask students and parents to follow protocols related to social distancing and large gatherings during Thanksgiving and the winter break.

“One of the things we know is that no one plan is going to make everyone happy,” Briggs said. “The discussion to return to school is not taken likely or without consideration of the health and safety of our staff.”

According to Jodi Smelko-Schneider, a district health coordinator, the district had 67 students quarantined last week because of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The highest numbers were at Pickerington High School Central (29 students quarantined) and Pickerington High School North (26).

The lone vote against the plan to return to a four-day, in-school model was Cathy Olshefski, who recommended the district phase in a return to more classes with students at the K-4 level because there is less travel of those students within the building to attend different classes.

“I would prefer to see a phase-in and not an all-in at once,” Olshefski said. “Let’s prove it to ourselves instead of just jumping into the deep end first.”

Briggs said the 45% of districts in the state already are providing in-person classes five days a week. He added the district will continue to monitor coronavirus cases locally and within the district over the next three weeks and could divert from the four-day model before or after Nov. 16 based on the prevalence of cases.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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