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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

Teachers Push Back As CPS Details Plans To Return To School


Cincinnati Public Schools teachers have many questions about the district's plan to return to school and some want the school board to re-evaluate its decision for re-opening. 

The board voted 4-3 in June to take up a blended learning model this fall, which would have all students attend in-person classes two or three days on alternate weeks, with remote learning taking place on the remaining days.

On Monday, Superintendent Laura Mitchell and others outlined just how that blended learning would work. In addition to staggered scheduling, it includes staff and students wearing face masks; new classroom layouts to allow for six feet of distance; students eating lunch in class; eliminating large school assemblies and field trips for the year; daily health checks; and assigned seating on buses, with a limit of one student per seat (siblings will be allowed to sit together). 

The district had previously announced its plans to get technology and devices into the hands of every second through 12th grader, along with access to WiFi through a partnership with Cincinnati Bell.

CPS also unveiled its policy for staff should they or a family member fall ill with COVID-19. If an employee is sick with COVID-19, they are eligible for sick leave, and under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) will be given 10 days off paid at 100%. If an employee is caring for a person with COVID-19, they may take sick leave and, under FFCRA, are eligible for 10 days paid at 66%. If they are caring for a child home from school or daycare, they may take FMLA for up to 12 weeks at 66% paid, with employer permission required. Finally, if the employee is in a vulnerable population and opts out of returning to school they are not eligible for paid sick leave, but may request a one-year unpaid leave of absence. 

You can see more details of CPS' plan here.

Furthermore, the district will work with the Cincinnati Health Department so that each school will have a nurse responsible for COVID-19 concerns. Translation services will be made available. The district has also established a tracking system which it will work closely on with the health department. 

Following the presentation, the board fielded myriad comments from district staff. 

Lexie Lopez-Mayo is a speech language pathologist who works with IEP (individual education plan) students with disabilities. She said last year's remote learning was "a disaster." 

"It was painted with very pretty rose-colored glasses ... and I'm sorry to tell you it was a disaster," she said. "That's a misrepresentation of what actually happened. You need to know that."  

She said there was a reason she joined via video for her allotted two minutes during the comment period. "Because I want you to see this face," she told the board. "I wanted you to see that I'm a person. I have no choice - I have to work. That means you're putting me and my children at risk." 

Teacher Drewe Warndorff wondered how the district would handle new student enrollment throughout the year and what the teacher review process would look like given that "teachers are being forced to move away from best practices." 

Barrett Smith said the district's current discussions seemed "divorced from reality." 

"How many sick students and staff are acceptable? How many hospitalizations are acceptable? How many dead students and staff are acceptable?" he posited. "An online semester is imperfect but it is preferable to one that leads to the death of students and colleagues."

Cincinnati Federation of Teachers Union President Julie Sellers said she received "five, six, seven hundred calls" of teachers expressing a concern about a return to school in the fall. "I do appreciate all the details of the plan and the focus on safety but there are still too many unanswered questions," she said. "What will be the cause for us to close?"

If schools were to close, it would come at a cost to the already struggling district. Treasurer Jennifer Wagner said before the pandemic hit, revenues were frozen at the same level as 2019 but with enrollment growing by 553 students. This year the state cut $8,720,168 from the school's funding. She has looked at different budget scenarios for different situations and said that even with trimming staff and resources the district faces a more than $17.2 million deficit. 

Nearly three hours after the meeting started, the board called for a recess before moving onto other agenda items. Before the break, Board President Carolyn Jones shared a moment of introspection many can likely relate to. 

"Everybody here wants the best for kids," she said, adding that she is supportive of the superintendent's recommendations. "I've cried and cried over this. I've been anxious because I don't want the burden of anybody's death on me. I'm going to have to temper myself around that. This is a tough situation, but we got elected to make tough decisions. I haven't felt like I've been myself, but I will get there."

The board's next meeting is July 15 at 4:30 p.m. and will be livestreamed. As of now, school is set to open Aug. 24, with student schedules sent out by the end of this month.

A previous version of this story misidentified Lexie Lopez-Mayo as a teacher. She is a speech language pathologist. 

Jennifer Merritt brings 20 years of "tra-digital" journalism experience to WVXU.