CINCINNATI (WCMH) – Amid a nationwide shortage of teachers – and increasing turnover – one Ohio school district is trying a different approach to mitigate burnout among students and staff: Ditching a day of in-person instruction.

The North College Hill City Schools District Board of Education voted unanimously last week to adopt a blended learning schedule for the 2023-24 school year. Instead of coming to school Monday through Friday, students will start the week by studying or completing assignments at home while teachers have a full day of planning. The other four days are “normal” school days.

No other school in central Ohio — or elsewhere in the state — has made such a shift. But as more school districts come to grips with fewer teachers and increasing strain on staff’s mental health and resources, North College Hill may pave the way for unconventional school schedules statewide.

North College Hill Superintendent Eugene Blalock said the change will hopefully address multiple issues facing the district, including high absenteeism and exhaustion among teachers. Blalock described a feedback loop in which teachers call off, other teachers serve as in-house substitutes and forfeit their one planning period of the day – leading to more fatigue, stress and teacher absences.

“They never got a break, and we just started seeing our teachers’ mental health and physical health start to deteriorate,” Blalock said. “They started taking more time off, and we started seeing teacher burnout firsthand.”

The change was, in part, born out of the district’s “data days” – monthly occurrences when students would stay home and teachers could plan lessons based on metrics of student achievements like math and reading scores, and collaborate with each other. Blalock said that in staff surveys, teachers pointed to those dedicated planning days as not only helping improve students’ scores, but as a way to connect with other colleagues outside the high-stress, high-demand school day.

From there, Blalock said the school board looked for inspiration. Not finding it in Ohio, they discovered school districts out west adopting a blended learning model that gave teachers a full day of uninterrupted planning.

The change didn’t come without significant discussion of possible barriers to the model, Blalock said. Many families in the district are low-income, and an extra day with children at home would likely conflict with parents’ work schedules. A lot of students receive free and reduced meals at school and rely on that food source, Blalock said.

Blalock said the district is working with its food services to ensure students have food on Mondays, whether it be sending those meals home on Fridays or having kids pick up lunch on Mondays. Since all 1,400 students walk to school anyway, transportation on at-home days won’t be an issue.

As far as working parents unable to stay home each Monday, Blalock said several nearby childcare services have reached out to the district with open spaces for children. He’s meeting with childcare groups in the spring and hopes to develop a network of providers to push out to families before the school year starts.

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said any learning model made with staff’s concerns and needs in mind can make the school environment better for everyone, including students. He said he appreciated the district’s collaboration with teachers in developing the schedule, acknowledging that although districts across the country are facing similar challenges, each district knows what’s best for its community.

“As I talked to fellow members, I think the most precious commodity we have is time, and so often there are so many pressures that face our schools and face our teachers in the classroom, that having some time to really collaborate and reflect and plan can have a really positive impact on students,” DiMauro said.

The blended model also opens the door for more opportunities for students, Blalock said. While younger students (K-8) will have access to support staff, like aides, during the day to help with assessments or studies, high school students can take Mondays to pursue career opportunities and internships.

The Ohio Department of Education requires schools to declare by July 1 whether they will use a blended learning model for the following school year. Under the blended learning policy, schools cannot declare at-home days for emergencies, including weather-related closures and staffing shortages, but rather must include at-home days as part of the “overall plan” of instruction. More than 600 school districts, charter schools and private schools used a blended or virtual model of instruction during the 2021-22 school year, according to the education department.

Blalock is hopeful that the shift to a blended learning model will boost morale, health outcomes and resilience among teachers and, in turn, increase student success.

“This is about student achievement,” Blalock said. “I think we need systemic change. We must disrupt the system that is currently not working in the best interest of students and staff.”