Columbus City Schools delays in-person classes until January

Alissa Widman Neese
ThisWeek group
Classrooms sit empty for remote instruction at Southwood Elementary School on Oct. 8. Columbus City Schools announced Oct. 20 that most students won't return to buildings until Jan. 15, 2021, because COVID-19 coronavirus cases are trending upward again in central Ohio.

Columbus families made their frustrations known at a Columbus school board meeting Oct. 20 after an announcement that plans to return students to classes in person would be changing for the fourth time in about a month.

Now children will continue learning online from home until at least the end of this semester, which ends Jan. 15. The second semester begins Jan. 19.

The decision was made because of increasing spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in central Ohio and across the state, officials said.

Until the update, most families in Ohio's largest school district were preparing for a return to school buildings in early November. 

Although she agreed with the district's decision, Marielle Henault of North Linden, who is the mother of a second-grader, said the district must "commit to stability" as it crafts and communicates the next plan.

"We cannot go through this again," Henault said of the flip-flopping plans. "It wreaks havoc on our families' jobs and our children's mental health."

In the presentations that followed from Superintendent Talisa Dixon and conversations among school board members, which spanned a few hours, they said often that no decisions are made lightly.

About 1,600 of the district's 50,000 students are not engaged with online learning, which makes the decision to not return even more complicated, she said.

But, in many cases, how the district communicates changes can improve, Dixon said.

"Do we want to consistently change and consistently upset our parents? No. We want to provide the best educational opportunities for the students and families that we serve," Dixon said. "This is not a perfect time or a perfect solution, but know we're working passionately, with a lot of energy, to get this right."

In the meantime, Dixon said, the district will work to reach those missing students, while also occasionally bringing some small groups of students who would most benefit from in-person learning into buildings.

That will start Nov. 2 with two groups.  

One is students in career-technical programs at Columbus Downtown High School and Fort Hayes Career Center because students in those programs must hone particular skills to receive certification for careers.

The other is some students at all grade levels who receive special-education services and have "complex needs."

More groups will be announced soon, she said.

The district soon "will evaluate" the future of winter sports, Dixon said. Fall sports and other extracurricular activities won't be affected.

Officials from Columbus Public Health will continue to provide guidance, the superintendent said.

Ohio recently set three record-high days for new cases of COVID-19 and experienced five days with more than 2,000 reported cases. On Oct. 15, the coronavirus advisory level in Franklin County was elevated from a Level 2, or "orange," to a Level 3, or "red," according to the four-tiered on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System.

As of Oct. 20, Ohio's hospitals were caring for more COVID-19 patients than at any time since the coronavirus pandemic began.

As cases started trending upward, some community members had expressed concerns about the district's plans to return to classes.

The Columbus Education Association, the district's 4,000-member teachers union, released a statement early Oct. 20, criticizing the move due to safety concerns. It included highlights from a survey of 80% of its membership, in which 30% said the district didn't provide face masks, 37% reported receiving either disinfectant or hand sanitizer, but not both, and 38% said they didn't believe their workspace had been cleaned prior to returning to work at it, as required by the district.

In a response, district leaders disagreed that buildings are unsafe.

All buildings received face masks, five for each employee, on Aug. 17, and the district has spent $5 million to date on cleaning equipment and supplies and protective equipment, school board President Jennifer Adair said.

John Coneglio, Columbus Education Association president, declined comment Oct. 20 due to the union's ongoing negotiations with the district about its plans.

A group of concerned families that calls itself "Press Pause CCS" also had campaigned against the return to school this semester, and demanded improved communication and transparency.

"This is only a step in the right direction to rebuild the trust you've broken," explained Columbus Gifted Academy eighth-grader Graciela Leahy, 13, at the Oct. 20 meeting.

Lahey's mother, Elisa Stone Leahy, is one parent leading the charge.

But others, such as parent Ashley Noble of northwest Columbus, who also spoke Oct. 20, said online learning isn't working for all children and many are becoming stressed and disengaged.

"We will never be free of COVID, and our children's lives must move on," Noble said. "We don't know the repercussions of this lost time of academic growth and social and emotional development."

Board member James Ragland also expressed concerns about low-income families with inflexible work schedules, who rely on their children being in school to not jeopardize their employment.

"I'm hearing from parents that are facing eviction if their kids don't get back in school," he said.

This was the second time in October the district has delayed its plans for "blended learning," which would have students in grades K-8 attending class twice weekly and spending the other three days learning remotely from home. The plan always has been for high school students to remain at home.

The complicated situation isn't unique to the Columbus school district, though.

At least 16 districts across Ohio have scaled back on in-person schooling as COVID-19 cases rise statewide, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in his Oct. 20 briefing on the coronavirus pandemic.

On Oct. 19, for example, Toledo's district announced that high schools would remain closed this semester. While students in preschool and grades K-2 returned Oct. 12, the start dates for students in other grades have been pushed back to Oct. 26 and Nov. 12.

At least 50 of the state's more than 600 districts were learning fully online as of Oct. 20, impacting at least 300,000 students, DeWine said.

"It concerns me that so many of our kids are going to school remotely," he said. "While many kids can do well under these circumstances, many cannot."

During his press conference, DeWine asked Ohioans to do their part to keep the virus under control by wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.

"We owe it to our children. We owe it to their future," DeWine said. "We owe it to our state's future, to fight back, to not accept this as something that just has to be. It doesn't have to be this way."

awidmanneese@dispatch.com

@AlissaWidman