Pickerington Schools' plan to increase in-person classes draws support, concerns

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.

As Pickerington Schools plans to increase the number of weekly in-person class days, views differ among parents and board members.

On Oct. 12, the board of education voted 4-1 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.”

The plan was welcome news to Ryan Holstine, who has three children in the district – a son in the second grade and daughters in third and fifth.

“I’m a super-overprotective parent and, at first, I wasn’t in favor of going back to in-person instruction,” Holstine said. “Now, I’m looking forward to getting them back out there in some sense of normalcy.”

More:Pickerington school board votes to increase in-person classes

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 classes through its Virtual Learning Academy. Officials said about 20% of the district’s 10,600 students are enrolled in the VLA.

Holstine, who has been working from home throughout the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, said he’s helped his children with their online instruction when needed. But he said it’s a juggling act, and his children prefer to attend classes in-person.

“We’ve made the best of it and the teachers have been amazing, but I’m not a teacher,” he said. “My kids want to go back.

“It’s not like we’re starting from scratch and, frankly, everything else in the community has reopened to some capacity.”

While Holstine is eager for the transition, provided local COVID-19 cases don’t significantly spike before then, Mallory Samczak doesn’t support the plan.

Samczak is critical-care nurse and has daughters in first and seventh grades. She not only worries the decision could put children at risk but also that it could have a damaging impact on the community at-large.

“I have been working on the front lines with COVID patients since the beginning of the pandemic,” she said. “Not only am I worried about my kids, but I’ve seen what this virus does in real time.

“What about the parents? What about the teachers, the grandparents and the other friends and family members who are going to be exposed to this virus?”

Samczak pointed to upticks in cases throughout Ohio and Fairfield County as more reason to delay sending students back to school buildings, which district officials have acknowledged will make it impossible to maintain social distancing, particularly on buses and in cafeterias.

According to the Ohio Department of Health’s update Oct. 13, cases have averaged 1,475 cases per day by report date as compared to an average of approximately 1,000 cases per day only two weeks ago. Ohio's current positivity rate is 4.1 percent as compared to 2.7 percent on September 23-24.

ODH also reported Fairfield County and Franklin County both were at Level 2, the second-highest coronavirus incidence level set by the state.

“Everybody is suffering through this pandemic, and we’ve all had to sacrifice something,” Samczak said. “Ideally, we want to get our kids’ lives back to normal, but we want to do it safely.

“To dive right in at the beginning of the holiday season and the beginning of cold and flu season is absolutely reckless.”

In addition to Samczak, the Pickerington Education Association, which represents 685 Pickerington Schools teachers, nurses, guidance counselors, media specialists and special services providers, opposes the increase in-person classes.

“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,” PEA President Heather Tinsley said during the public-comment portion of the Oct. 12 teleconferenced meeting. “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 the week of Oct. 5 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

@ThisWeekNate