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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.

So, How Is Back-To-School Going?

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

As more local school districts return to classrooms - in-person and virtually - experiences are varied. Most agree the situation isn't ideal, and there are both success stories and extreme challenges. WVXU reached out to a few families to see how the first days and weeks are going.On the whole, the people with whom WVXU spoke said things seemed to be going as well as could be expected. To be certain, not everyone is having this same experience.

Virtual Learning

Angie Asselin lives in Northside and her two children - 4th and 7th grades - attend Parker Woods Montessori and Gamble Montessori High School, both Cincinnati Public Schools. The kids are doing remote schooling and the family is part of a remote schooling pod, where several families come together to do school online, but together. (In some cases, people have organized "pandemic pods" where a professional teacher is engaged to facilitate learning.)

"It definitely has been a rearrangement of lives to deal with this," says Asselin, who made the decision to leave her full-time job as a nanny in order to facilitate this school year. She's still doing some nannying and is helping lead two remote schooling pods.

"We have eight kids in five grades in four different schools, so that's a lot of different schedules to maintain," she says. "Even within my own home when I have my nephew and my own kids, that's still three schools with three very different schedules."

Asselin says her family's experience has been positive so far, with no major technology issues, and she thinks her kids' teachers are doing their best and bringing a positive attitude to the situation.

"One of the challenges has been that the district gave so much autonomy to the schools and the teachers that there's a lot of different approaches and not everyone is having that same experience so far."

She says the biggest problems have been non-working web links or having to restart computers. The district's Schoology platform is working for her family, but she acknowledges that she's heard other people are having problems logging in or that they feel the communication from teachers hasn't been clear enough.

Remote, Then Hybrid Learning

Junius Smith's son is a 4th grader at Fairview-Clifton German Language School which, like all Cincinnati Public Schools, is opening the year with remote learning. The plan is for his son to participate in CPS' hybrid model once, and if, that begins.

Smith, who adjusted his schedule to work nights when school went online in the spring, has shifted again to take his own classes half the day and supervise his son's schooling the other half. Similar to the pod concept Asselin discusses, Smith and a parent from another school are working together to help each other.

"I've been very fortunate that my small community - we look out for each other, and we have backup plans just in case," he explains. "Once a week, their child will be with my son at my home and then rotating every other week for the next five weeks. That way there's balance. That way those who don't have such a flexibility in their work schedule, it gives them a little leeway."

Smith says he's gracious to the teachers who are working with these new systems, lesson plans and technology. "They are troopers," he says. "We've had technical difficulties every day and the teachers have been communicative, understanding... they are working with us parents."

However, he says he knows other families who aren't having as much luck. "I had one associate whose kids didn't even get logged in until two o'clock." That said, Smith is taking a positive approach. "It's the first week, so got to be kind of honest that it's better to get all these difficulties out these first couple weeks and then get the ball rolling ... it's better to screw up early than to screw up late."

Smith worries about students who don't have as much support or a community surrounding them, and those parents who are having to choose between going to work or educating their child.

"My son will tell you that as much as I love being a dad, that kid next to me is just as important because if someone doesn't care for that kid, that could be the kid that down the road falls through the cracks and does not get the chance to be a great member of society."

In-Person Learning

Kristen Hurd is the parent of a kindergartner and a 3rd grader in the Wyoming school district. She and her husband are able to work from home and when she spoke with WVXU, her children were going to school in-person five days per week after a week of hybrid orientation. Wyoming City Schools is fully face-to-face (with masks) if Hamilton County is at a Level 1 or Level 2 on the state's COVID-19 public health advisory system (which as of this writing, it currently is). The district will move to a hybrid plan or online plan if the levels increase.

The hybrid week went well "given that this is kind of an emergency remote situation with the pandemic," Hurd says, though the kids were on computers for long stretches of time and she notes someone needed to be present to help them.

Hurd says she feels equipped by the district because it provided laptops for students and because someone is able to be home to help if their kids have to switch to hybrid learning. She works in home education technology but isn't a teacher herself, and she worries about the challenges this presents for working and single parents.

"It's very challenging for single parents. It's very challenging for people with health concerns. I am concerned about students who need special services that are not able to get that on remote days; if they have IEPs (individualized education programs); or if they have special needs. I worry about those students falling behind."

She also worries about a lack of social/emotional learning; students with unstable home lives; those who lack a strong internet connection; and whether school meal plans will meet hunger needs.

Like Asselin, the Hurds are relying on friends and family if the district has to go to hybrid or remote learning.

"For remote days we have plans to join another family," she explains. "We tested this out last week with our summer babysitter helping out. We had a schedule of all the Zoom meetings. We had the children sit in our dining room with their laptops and they logged in on time and they stayed pretty focused, but it does take quite a bit of effort and it's not something any of us are accustomed to doing because none of us are trained teachers."

Hybrid Learning

Michelle Gallo's 9th and 11th grade students attend Fairfield City Schools and are learning on a hybrid plan, meaning half the district goes to school in person two days per week and does remote learning while the other half does in-person.

She says her kids are happy to be back, though they miss their friends that are on the other schedule.

"The at-home portion seems to be going better than last year... a little more organized and getting more direction while they're at school with regards to what they need to do," she says. "I'd say overall it's going as well as could be expected. It's a tough time."

Technology is a concern for the district. According to its restart plan, all high school students should receive a laptop and students in lower grades could request them as well. A district spokesperson tells WVXU all virtual learning students received computers but demand exceeded supply. The district is still waiting on laptops it ordered in the spring.

"We're stuck using our own computers," says Gallo. "One of my kids is using my personal computer and one is using my husband's old computer, so it's not the best situation setup right now but it's all we have. It would be a lot easier if we had the laptops from the school."

Like everyone WVXU spoke with, Gallo has adjusted her work schedule to be able to be home three days per week. She says she knows she's lucky to have that flexibility.

"Even though they're older, they still need help - things don't work, the printer doesn't work, they can't access the right site. There's just all these things that come up that they need help with. And just questions... to expect kids of any age to be able to work independently without guidance, I think, is not realistic for most kids."

While Gallo says there's been a lot of communication from the district, she still has questions. For example, she worries about how positive COVID-19 cases will be handled and reported to parents. Will kids have to quarantine? What rules will be used to determine who should quarantine? What if too many teachers test positive, what happens to the learning process?

"I'm just concerned that we'll go all remote, which is not ideal, for my kids, anyway."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.