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'This is like déjà vu': Why CPS decided to go remote for the second school year in a row

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Cory Sharber
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WVXU
The Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education voted 6-1 to move the district to remote learning starting Wednesday.

For the second school year in a row, the Cincinnati Public School district is being forced to go remote due to staffing shortages caused by COVID-19.

"This is like déjà vu, I mean it really is," Board Vice President Carolyn Jones said.

Jones spoke before voting to move the district to remote learning. She was in the same position in Nov. 2020, when, as the then-board president, COVID-19 cases also caused staffing shortages.

Last Thursday, 786 employees were absent, more than when the district went remote in Nov. 2020. Last week, there were not enough substitute teachers to even fill half of the classrooms in need as cases continued ramping up. Assistant Superintendent Susan Bunte addressed questions community members had about subs not filling absences.

"Many of our substitutes are retirees and/or people who wish not to be in buildings during this high rate of COVID infection," Bunte said.

Staff members have been stretched to their limits in just the past week. Bus drivers had to fill in for security and dining services. Last Thursday, 30 temporary employees served as security monitors in buildings and parents are even providing aid by helping at lunch. While some teachers are concerned about contracting the virus, others have already been infected. Kim Toben teaches at Dater High School. She's been out since Tuesday. She's fully vaccinated and received her booster shot.

"I've protected my family for the greater part of almost two years from getting it," Toben said. "I've been diligent in that fight and still, I'm here before you. I've never felt this sick in my life."

As an English teacher, she's worried about who's filling her role during her absence.

"For the first week of quarter two, a sub was covering my classes and not a sub that's like, a certified teacher, but whatever warm body we could throw in there is who covered my classes," Toben said. "So my students - my juniors and seniors who need English to graduate - spent the first week of the quarter with no instruction."

Going remote won't necessarily stop spread, doctors say

Nearly 1,500 students were in quarantine last Thursday, the highest amount reported during the pandemic. Dr. Patricia Manning of Cincinnati Children's says hospitalizations have more than quadrupled over the past two weeks.

"We are seeing much higher numbers of children hospitalized with COVID than we have at any time in the pandemic, and it's just a volume I never dreamed we would see," Manning said.

Also from Cincinnati Children's, Dr. Robert Kahn says closing schools isn't necessarily the right answer when it comes to containing spread of the virus.

"There's also ideal remote conditions where kids and families are actually safe and healthy at home, but that's not typically what happens between sports and other clubs and other mixing in unmasked environments - going full remote hasn't shown to be fully safe as well," Kahn said.

Kahn's colleague Manning agreed, saying the rise of COVID cases in the district wouldn't necessarily slow down by taking a break.

"Going virtual in a school setting would not necessarily mitigate spread because I think all of those individuals would just simply spread it somewhere else because it's so infectious," Manning said. "I think what we need to do is just try and figure out how we make it through these next few weeks, keeping as many people safe as possible, and meeting the needs. For us [Children's Hospital], it's meeting the health care needs of the region. For you all, it's meeting the academic needs."

CPS' next steps

Interim Superintendent Tianay Amat says the district does not have enough certified teachers covering classrooms. She says the district will also work on training people to cover absences in the security and custodial departments as the district heads into remote learning.

"I can't guarantee you what omicron is going to look like in two weeks, I can't, but I can guarantee you our actions and our response to the virus," Amat said.

CPS will resume in-person learning Jan. 24 if staffing levels are sufficient to open the schools. The board is scheduled to meet on that day.

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