Pickerington Schools weighing health safety, need for in-person classes

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Pickerington Schools Superintendent Chris Briggs

As Pickerington Schools teachers continue to have reservations about returning to in-person classes full time, administrators say the number of failed classes is on the rise. 

During the Pickerington Board of Education meeting Jan. 25, the Pickerington Education Association – the union representing district teachers – reiterated concerns about the prospect of returning the entire student body to in-person classes. 

Since the start of the school year, schools have operated under a hybrid model in which about 50% of students in each building attend in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and the rest attend in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays. On days when students aren’t in buildings, they complete coursework online. 

Throughout the year, school board members and district administrators have said they want to return to a traditional, in-person schedule as soon as it’s safe to do so. They’re hopeful that time is coming soon, as district teachers and staff currently are scheduled to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations the week of Feb. 22. 

But concerns remain, PEA President Heather Tinsley told the board. She said desks in some classrooms can’t be adequately spaced to maintain social distancing and teachers, students and staff are struggling to juggle teaching and learning amid quarantines forced by the virus. 

“Teachers and staff are frequently being tested for COVID due to exposures in and out of the classroom,” Tinsley said. “It is hard on students, staff and families to be away from school for so long. 

“Teachers are worried what will happen next. In these times, we look to our leaders to help guide us and keep us safe. This moment demands all of us to make difficult choices that will allow our staff, students and community to stay healthy.” 

Superintendent Chris Briggs said the administration and board still are wrestling with the “very difficult” decision of when students should return to buildings four or five days a week. 

While teachers are concerned about health and safety, Briggs said families in the district are under significant strains due to those same concerns and because some struggle to supervise students who are completing classwork at home while parents work. 

He said a greater number of students are falling behind academically. 

“The problem we face, quite frankly, is we are losing some students that are not showing great attendance and are failing,” Briggs said. “We have to address that issue first.” 

According to the district, the number of classes failed at Pickerington High School North increased 57.1% between the first semester of 2019-20 and the first semester of 2020-21. The increase at Pickerington Central was 46.7%. At Lakeview and Ridgeview junior high schools, the mark was 43.8%.

“It is the district’s desire to return to in-person instruction once it is deemed safe to do so,” said Crystal Davis, public relations director for the district. “In the meantime, the district will address the issues through our normal response-to-intervention procedures associated with attendance-intervention plans and academic-intervention efforts. 

“The district will monitor for any additional guidance forthcoming from the Ohio Department of Education and/or the governor. The district is exploring options, and there is additional funding coming from ESSER (U.S. Department of Education Office of Elementary & Secondary Education Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) to help us increase services for failing students.” 

As district officials and the PEA continue to discuss the issue, parents also come down on both sides. 

Rosalind Parker, a Columbus City Schools teacher, has a daughter in fourth grade at Sycamore Creek Elementary and a son in seventh grade at Ridgeview. 

While she’s sympathetic to the PEA’s concerns, she said she’s ready for her children to return to in-person classes at least four days a week. 

“It’s been rough,” Parker said. “It’s been tough to work from home and still keep up with (my children) and make sure they get everything done.” 

Parker said her son performs better academically in a classroom setting and her daughter much prefers to be in school to learning remotely. 

She said she now is being called back to work and is concerned about leaving her children at home alone. 

“I’m ready for them to go back,” Parker said. “I can’t say I would be ‘comfortable’ with all the students being back in the buildings at the same time, but I just think we’re at a point where we’re all ready to be back to normal.” 

Another parent, Brianna Kemper, is conflicted because her daughter, a fourth-grader at Violet Elementary, “has struggled with the lack of face-to-face” instruction. 

Conversely, Kemper said her son, a sixth-grader at Toll Gate Middle School, “has actually excelled and is doing much better with the virtual setup.” 

Kemper acknowledged it’s been helpful that her husband, Kevin, is able to work from home while their children take virtual classes and said hopes school leaders continue to defer to health officials before deciding to add in-person classes. 

“I want them back for the regularity, but I want the school district to listen to what the health department is recommending,” Kemper said. “I am concerned about all students being back and them not being able to maintain social distancing. 

“We’re lucky in that the hybrid works for us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t for everybody.” 

 nellis@thisweeknews.com 

@ThisWeekNate