When Molly Wales heard last week that Athens County had the worst spread of COVID-19 in Ohio, she said it was a reality check for the rural county tucked into southeastern Ohio’s rolling hills.
“My personal reaction was, ‘ah, our bubble has burst,’” said Wales, a nurse for Athens City Schools.
Last Thursday, state health leaders declared COVID-19 a ‘Level 3’ public health emergency in Athens and 18 other Ohio counties. But only in Athens was the spread of coronavirus considered so severe that it was approaching ‘Level 4,’ the highest in the state’s advisory system, which is updated every Thursday at 2 p.m.
But even before Athens County reached Level 3, Wales and fellow ACSD nurse Heidi Shaw had recommended a rare reopening plan to district officials: open school virtually. No students in classrooms, no staggered schedule, but a fully online return to learning for the district’s 2,400 students.
“We are in a completely different situation than we were in four weeks ago,” Wales said, “and the 20,000 undergrads at [Ohio University] have not even returned to town yet. So we don’t really know what’s coming.”
‘Barriers to infection control’
Wales said she and Shaw came to their conclusion after reviewing state, local and national reopening guidelines and worrying that there was just too much room for error with only two nurses for ACSD’s six buildings.
“There’s just way too many barriers to infection control,” Wales said.
In her statement to the school board, Wales said these barriers include staffing and maintaining dedicated coronavirus rooms in all six school buildings, as well as the difficulty of determining if the myriad symptoms that a student could be feeling means he or she has COVID-19 or just a common bug.
“How many confirmed cases of COVID will it take to shut down a classroom? A whole school?” Wales asked in her statement. “What if multiple teachers in one building come down with it, or their families do, and they have to stay home for weeks? What if Heidi, I, and the clinic staff get caught in an outbreak? Who will run the clinics then, and who will be training them on a moment’s notice?
Even with social distancing, Wales said, a couple asymptomatic kids could spread COVID-19 to other children, who could take it home to elderly caregivers or high-risk family members.
“Even if we’re doing temperature checks, even if we are carefully monitoring everybody for coughs, runny nose, all these other symptoms, there’s just too large a margin of error that could send the threat out of control amongst school families,” she said.
Wales said the nurses sent the plan to ACSD superintendent Tom Gibbs, who decided the reopening plan that the school board will vote on during Thursday evening’s meeting will be for a fully remote fall semester starting Aug. 31.
Gibbs penned a letter to parents outlining his recommendation to the board. It includes reassessing health risks in November to decide on opening classrooms after winter break, an option to learn online for the entire school year, training teachers to be more effective online instructors and training some staff members to make direct contact with students who need more support.
The plan also considers “targeted outreach with possible limited face-to-face instruction for specific therapies and educational programming for our most at-risk learners on Individualized Education Plans,” according to Gibbs’ letter.
Also, student attendance will be taken daily and the grading system will not change.
“Direct interaction between students and teachers is a must,” Gibbs wrote. “While previously recorded lessons may be used for instruction, some level of synchronous distance learning must occur on a daily basis.”
Rare for a rural district
Remote-only learning this fall would be a rarity among Ohio school districts, let alone rural ones, as schools prepare to reopen in August and September.
NBC4 is tracking the reopening plans of all 106 public school districts in its 22-county central/southeast Ohio viewing area. Of the more than 30 plans NBC4 has collected so far, only Southwest Licking Local Schools plans to open with all students learning remotely, but that depends on Licking County’s state public health advisory level.
If Licking County’s status improves from red to orange or yellow, then students will be physically in school five days a week. But if Athens County improves, Athens City Schools does not plan to change course.
“That way, everybody knows and can adapt to what the plan is without having to sort of bounce in and out of school buildings depending on our color code,” Wales said.
A district survey of members of the Athens Education Association found that 85 percent felt comfortable with returning to school online, as opposed to fewer than 50 percent and 20 percent for a blended model or full in-person return, respectively.
Wales said the online-only plan has gotten “overwhelming support from staff members” and positive comments from parents. But not all Athens parents are satisfied with the idea.
“I have a son who is going to be a senior,” said Athens parent Anne Cornwell, “and I watched what online was for him” when ACSD went fully online this past spring. “And he doesn’t learn that way.”
“With a mask, I’m comfortable with him going to school,” she added, “and I’m comfortable with him coming home to me.”
Cornwell said she wishes Athens would at least adopt a hybrid model, in which students are in school part of the week, along with Gibbs’ proposed option to learn online the entire year. This kind of plan – a hybrid model with an online option – has been common among districts in central Ohio Level 3 counties that have already released their plans.
“I think this comes down to choice,” she said. “As a parent, I believe every parent should have a choice.”
But Wales advises that any schedule that includes students physically in classrooms risks spreading COVID-19.
“We want the kids back in school as much as anybody does,” Wales said, “But we feel a consistent approach for the fall semester would be better. And the only thing that is safely consistent, given the information we have right now, is entirely online.”
The 5-member Athens school board will vote on the plan during their Thursday meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m.