The Cincinnati Public School Board on Monday reversed course on its reopening plans for fall. The district will now start the 2020 school year fully remote, instead of with the blended learning model it decided on in late June.
A vote did not take place, but the board unanimously decided to allow Superintendent Laura Mitchell to move forward with her plan to proceed with distance learning for the first five weeks of the 2020 school year, which begins Aug. 24. The plan is to reassess on Sept. 14, and the hope is to have students return to the classroom by Sept. 28.
All of this, Mitchell said, depends on community buy-in. "So this is an all-call out to the community to help us get our kids back in school as quickly as possible by social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands, and following all the CDC guidelines," she said. "This should really be a city-wide campaign to get our kids back in school as quickly as possible. We cannot do this alone. It will take all of our community members to help us."
Mitchell said the district looked at - and will continue to look at - several data points in making this recommendation: a downward trend of cases; the county's place on the Ohio Public Health Advisory scale; positivity rate; and the community's capacity to be able to sustain a downward trend.
In all of those points, Cincinnati is currently failing.
"At this point in time, we cannot say that there is a downward trend in the city of Cincinnati," Mitchell said. "We looked at the positivity rate, which is 7.7. I talked to the governor (Mike DeWine) over the weekend, and the positivity rate for the state is 6."
A series of virtual town halls - some for CPS employees and one for parents - will be held in the coming days for both groups to ask questions. The parent town hall is Aug. 10 at 4 p.m.
The district has been working with Children's Hospital on its plan and will continue to look to them for guidance throughout the school year. Mitchell also said the district is better prepared for remote learning than it was last spring when the pandemic first started.
"We were in crisis mode last spring and since that time we've been able to do a lot of work with our staff and curriculum to be a lot more innovative and provide a better solution for our young people," she said.
Meeting New Needs
That includes requiring teachers to use Google Meet; a standardized schedule; separate student, staff and family handbooks so that everyone is clear on expectations; and providing devices and connectivity to all students.
CPS' Lead Network Engineer Jeremy Gollihue said currently, more than 11,000 devices have been distributed. Cincinnati Bell, who has agreed to provide free internet to students who need it, will have representatives at schools on device distribution days to better encourage sign ups. Gollihue said during a pilot program, the district learned that 30% needed access, but only 7% turned out to apply.
Students with disabilities and English language learners also will continue to receive services.
Athletics, meanwhile, will be paused, though the district is allowing students to continue participating in the skill training and development currently ongoing. Director Shauna Murphy said that coaches are working to ensure that students who want to play at the collegiate level will have reels.
Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton public schools have all recently announced they would start the school year remotely, in most cases for the first nine weeks of the school year. Superintendent Mitchell said the district is agile and has plans in place for when students are able to return to the classroom. That includes offices set up with safety shields, cleaning kits in every classroom, and an isolation room for students or staff that present with COVID-19 symptoms while on campus.
Parent And Teacher Reaction
The public comment period took place after CPS' decision, and feedback was largely positive, though questions remained.
Jaime, who did not provide her last name, told the board she is the working parent of child with special needs. "My child is too old to go to normal daycare, so the first five weeks is going to be a struggle," she said, adding that she works as a nurse. "My question is, after the first five weeks, if we don't go back, is there a plan in place for the kids that have a disability?" Board President Carolyn Jones responded that Superintendent Mitchell documented the question and would include an answer in the upcoming parent town hall.
Helena Minasian is a 10th grade teacher at CPS. "I just want to say thank you so much for doing distance learning. I'm currently pregnant, so I am at high risk and I felt very stressed out about not really having a choice of what I wanted to do this year," she told the board. "I felt like kids had a choice of doing the online option but teachers basically had two choices and one was to go the full year without making any money by doing a leave of absence, and the other was to perhaps risk my health, my husband's health, my family's health and the health of my unborn child, so thank you so much."
How CPS Got Here
In late June, CPS chose blended learning out of five other models it had previously presented to the public. That meant all students would attend in-person classes two days or three days on alternate weeks. They would then attend school remotely the other days.
But many teachers protested the idea, saying it puts students and staff at risk. Cincinnati Federation of Teachers Union President Julie Sellers said she received "five, six, seven hundred calls" from teachers following CPS' decision expressing concerns about a return to the classroom in the fall.
The pressure only increased as Hamilton County continued to hover on the cusp of turning from red to purple on Ohio's public health advisory scale. The number of cases in the county has since leveled off, but the county remains red.
Superintendent Mitchell said in June that the always-changing coronavirus situation could mean the district must make quick decisions about changing plans. Now, three weeks before the start of school, the district has done just that.