Delaware City Schools will stick with hybrid reopening plan

PAUL COMSTOCK
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ThisWeek group

Delaware City Schools' plan to resume classes Aug. 31 by offering a hybrid model that alternates in-school and remote learning for students survived a split vote by the school board Aug. 10.

The board first approved the plan in July. It also gives families the option of a fully online learning academy.

In the hybrid model, half the students would alternate attending school three days and learning at home two days for one week, while the following week they would attend school two days and learn remotely three days.

The board in July said it would revisit the plan before school starts and did so Aug. 10, devoting more than two hours to the topic during the special meeting that was livestreamed on the district's Facebook page.

The session included more than an hour of comments from residents, read by board members during the meeting.

The comments included expressions of anxiety about the safety of returning to in-person classes during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, along with criticism of the efficiency of online learning.

Near the end of the meeting, board member Ted Backus made a motion to scrap the hybrid plan and start the school year with 100% online learning.

Although he supported the hybrid plan in July, Backus said Aug. 10 that most people he has talked to have fear about hybrid learning and the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The hybrid plan looks good on paper, he said, but plans can be affected by the human element.

"There's nothing we can present that's 100% safe," he said.

Some families favoring the hybrid model want their children to experience school's social aspect, missing since the pandemic began, he said.

But social distancing and other restrictions mean the traditional social aspects of school can't return for the fall, he said; students won't be able to touch or socialize.

Superintendent Heidi Kegley earlier said face masks would be required for all staff and students at school buildings and mask breaks would be held for the youngest students.

All buildings will follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cleaning protocols, and protocols will be developed for students' arrival and dismissal, the cafeteria, boarding and disembarking buses, class transitions and for specific buildings, she said.

Teachers will have no fully online option under the hybrid model, Backus said.

"If we go back, they go back," he said.

"This is not an easy decision by any means for the district and for the board," said board member Matt Weller. "But by the end of the day, I think that this is the best plan to get us back into schools and it's the safest plan that we have at the moment based on the information we know today -- and certainly that can change. ... If the professionals are telling us that ... in their opinion our plan is safe ... then I'm going to continue my position to support the hybrid plan."

Backus and Frances O'Flaherty voted for the remote-only restart. Weller, Michael Wiener and Jayna McDaniel-Browning voted to keep the hybrid plan with the fully remote option.

O'Flaherty, a longtime teacher, said it isn't realistic to expect high school students to strictly adhere to social-distancing and face-mask requirements.

Delaware General Health District commissioner Shelia Hiddleson told the board, "The plan we have in place is a solid plan based on the best practices we have" and everything known today about COVID-19.

The health district will monitor the situation and can recommend changes "if we start to see something happen," she said.

Current evidence shows the greatest risk of COVID-19 transmission is airborne droplets than can infect others when two people are within 6 feet of each other for at least 15 minutes without face masks, Hiddleson said.

That means, she said, wearing face masks, staying at least 6 feet apart and keeping individual contacts under 15 minutes provides three barriers to the spread of the virus. As an example, she said, students wearing masks and only walking past each other in a hallway are practicing two barriers.

Use of a face shield is an alternative to wearing a mask, she said. Not all students who have asthma, for example, are prevented from wearing a mask, she said.

School nurses know which students are immunocompromised, Hiddleson said, and always have had that information.

The health district has always conducted contact tracing -- a tool used to limit COVID-19 spread -- with students suffering illnesses such as whooping cough, she said.

If contact tracing reveals a student has been exposed to COVID-19, she said, any resulting quarantine would not affect their family members. One student exposed to the virus also wouldn't quarantine an entire school building, she said.

Following the meeting, district director of communications Jennifer Ruhe said the district continues to work with families on a case-by-case basis to enroll in the online academy, "due to extenuating circumstances." The district had set a July deadline for enrollment.

"Currently, we have 1,420 students signed up in the online academy, which is approximately 24% of our students," she said.

The district staff was scheduled to return to buildings Aug. 14 to implement health and safety protocols and ensure the staff has everything needed for the start of the school year, Kegley said.

For more information on Delaware City Schools' return to classes, go to its website, dcs.k12.oh.us.

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