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CPS Teachers Voice Concerns About Returning To Blended Learning

Cincinnati Public Schools (screenshot from Jan. 20, 2021 meeting)
Pre-K through third grade, as well as specialized classrooms are slated to return Feb. 1.

Updated, Thursday, 3:52 p.m.

Cincinnati Public Schools on Saturday announced a return to blended learning Feb. 1. The decision was made just days after Hamilton County reached "purple" on Ohio's Public Health Advisory System, which indicates the highest level of spread. During Wednesday's board meeting, teachers voiced concerns about the return and the risk of contracting COVID-19.

The Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education in December laid out plans to return to blended learning if the city remained below 40 new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. When the board voted last week to return Feb. 1, the city was averaging 66 new daily cases. Some teachers are frustrated with the new plan, saying staff weren't given the opportunity to provide input, and they're worried about contracting the virus. Kia Alexander teaches science at the School For Creative and Performing Arts.

"The county has, as we all know, recently moved into purple," Alexander said. "It worries me that we likely won't be fully vaccinated, almost any of us, before we're teaching in-person again."

CPS says it will begin vaccinating staff members Feb. 1. Meanwhile, Hamilton County is having issues getting the vaccine. Commissioner Denise Driehaus last week said there weren't enough doses to get through the first phase of vaccinations.

Ben Jarvis is a teacher at Taft Information Technology High School. He said the board hasn't given a valid reason for not delaying the return until March 1 so teachers can receive the vaccine.

"There is absolutely no reason to be so callous in your disregard for your employees' safety that you would send them back well before it is necessary when the relief that they so direly need is so close in sight," Jarvis said.

How Students, Included Those At Walnut Hills, Will Return

On Wednesday, the board said the district will follow the same blended learning schedule as it did in the fall. That means students in A/B groups attend school two days a week with the rest of the week remote.

Board President Carolyn Jones calls the return plan a "sound decision," and expanded on why in a Thursday statement, saying "it is no easy task balancing health and safety in a pandemic with what we are charged to do as board members." 

She says staffing challenges were the primary reason for the move to distance learning in November. "A combination of increased staffing, a shorter quarantine period, and the vaccine will help address these issues," she wrote. "Our stance that school is one of the safest places for our students to be has not wavered. We are equally committed to continuing to follow the protocols that keep our buildings among the safest places for our staff, and providing leave options for those who are deemed high risk."

On Wednesday, Jones' main issue lay with the current state of Walnut Hills. The school didn't offer blended learning last semester because its classrooms don't allow for six feet of social distancing between students. Despite Jones' concerns, the Board determined that Walnut Hills will take part in blended learning. The plan will allow for three feet of social distancing in the classrooms. Here's Superintendent Laura Mitchell's explanation.

Credit Cincinnati Public Schools (screenshot from Jan. 21, 2021 meeting)
Cincinnati Public Schools (screenshot from Jan. 21, 2021 meeting)

"Six feet of social distance with the space at Walnut would only allow them to be in class one day a week in-person," Mitchell said. "If we do three feet of social distancing, that would get them to two days in-person and they would be on schedule with the rest of the district."

The CDC calls for desks to be at least six-feet apart. Some students are also upset about the return plan. Yousuf Munir is a senior at Walnut Hills and is president of the Young Activists Coalition.

"Are you guys just living in a completely different world than the rest of us and the people that are actually in the schools, because Hamilton County just went purple and your first thought is, 'Oh, this is a great time to send kids back to school.' "

More than 500 staff and over 300 CPS students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Staffing issues led CPS to switch to remote learning in November. At that time, fewer than 150 staff members had tested positive for the virus. Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Julie Sellers calls the decision to return "unbelievable" and said the union plans to seek an injunction.

"You all have a duty as a public employer to provide a safe place of employment," Sellers said. "Ohio Revised Law states that. It is a law in Ohio."

Board Member Mike Moroski did make a motion to delay a return to blended learning until March 1 but it went nowhere. The plan is still on for Feb. 1.

Cory Sharber attended Murray State University majoring in journalism and political science and comes to Cincinnati Public Radio from NPR Member station WKMS.