Cincinnati school board cool to a return to remote learning due to COVID-19

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UPDATED: On the first day back from winter break, more than 300 Cincinnati Public Schools employees were out sick with positive COVID-19 cases. As a result, the school board was asked Monday night to vote to move to remote instruction starting Thursday through Jan. 18.

Board members, who began a new term Monday, debated and weighed the idea at length, but could not reach a consensus.

The shift was recommended by interim Superintendent Tianay Amat. She and other administrators pointed to a city health department estimate that cases in Cincinnati now are doubling every three days.

The Cincinnati Public Schools main office in the Corryville neighborhood of Cincinnati on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.
The Cincinnati Public Schools main office in the Corryville neighborhood of Cincinnati on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

"It seems like we're back where we were," said board member Carolyn Jones said.

"If we don't shut down for this pandemic, the pandemic is going to shut us down," board member Mike Moroski said.

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Some school systems around the U.S. extended their holiday break Monday or switched back to online instruction because of the explosion in COVID-19 cases, while others pressed ahead with in-person classes amid a seemingly growing sense that Americans will have to learn to co-exist with the virus.

The proposal called for the entire district to go fully remote, but several members wanted to consider addressing things on a school-by-school basis.

Board member Eve Bolton advocated for allowing the staff of each school to reorganize and adjust to the lower staff levels. She said moving to remote learning on such short notice would be "devastating to students."

School administrators said central office workers were sent to 11 schools on Monday in order to fill vacancies. As many as 20 staff were sent to some schools. Without those central office workers, those schools – which comprise one of every seven in the district – would have had to close, administrators said.

Some of the board members wanted more information about how things would or could play out. Others suggested polling the parents. Bolton said she just wasn't hearing any creative solutions.

Moroski was the strongest advocate of the superintendent's plan. He encouraged the board to be decisive.

"We had 11 schools that should not or could not have been opened today. We have to make this decision," Moroski said. "We cannot keep messing around with this."

Amat said she would wait for more feedback from the board before initiating any plans, but reiterated that multiple principals were absent on Monday. She also told the board that the problem is not the transmission of the virus within the school, but staffing shortages from teachers to nurses to support staff to food service personnel.

The board meeting ended Monday with several of the members saying the issue would be discussed at its next Monday meeting.

Cincinnati Federation of Teacher President Julie Sellers said 60 people from the district's central office were sent to cover some classrooms Monday. "It's a real crisis," Sellers said. "It's not sustainable to have safe staffing."

Sellers said that staff cases of COVID-19 were at similar levels after Thanksgiving in 2020 when the district went remote for more than two months. She said Monday that some schools were up to 25 teachers short.

Under normal conditions substitute teachers can fill about 60% of the call-ins for the district, she said, but Monday this rate had fallen to 37% meaning there aren't enough substitutes.

Across Ohio, districts are making last-minute changes. Cleveland Metro announced late last week it would go remote, according to Cleveland.com.

The superintendent of Nordonia Hills School District in Summit County announced Sunday it was extending winter break at an elementary due to COVID-19's effects on staffing. He said he expected the school to only be closed Monday but later announced that would extend to Tuesday.

Columbus City Schools also "transitioned" ten schools in the district to remote learning Monday due to a high number of staff absences. On Monday at 4:30 p.m., the district website did not have any news about how classes would be continuing at those schools.

Melissa Cropper is the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. She said districts in the state should have been more prepared.

“Going into the holiday break, omicron was on the rise," Cropper said. "It’s disappointing to me that schools didn’t make a decision prior to the break to take an extra week.”

She said this could have given parents more time to prepare.

“We absolutely firmly believe that the best education for students is face to face with their teacher," Cropper said. “We also have to understand that just being in school is not necessarily good education if half the staff is absent.”

The Associated Press contributed.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Public Schools can't reach consensus on remote learning

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