It’s up to parents to determine whether returning to school is safe, Clark County health commissioner says

The Springfield High School girls tennis team practices Friday in the morning sun. Tennis is one of the safest sports for social distancing. Students will begin school in Clark and Champaign counties starting this month under new rules aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
The Springfield High School girls tennis team practices Friday in the morning sun. Tennis is one of the safest sports for social distancing. Students will begin school in Clark and Champaign counties starting this month under new rules aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Clark County’s health commissioner said it’s up to parents to make the decision about whether or not they think it’s safe to send their children back to school.

Charles Patterson, the health commissioner for the Clark County Combined Health District, said the district has been working “very hard,” with local superintendents to come up with the best plans to make schools “as safe as they possibly can be.”

“Is it safe to send kids to school? Well, what I can tell you, and I can’t give you a yes or no answer,” Patterson said. “They are allowing parents to make a decision, ‘Do I feel safe sending my kids to school?‘”

Out of the 11 public school districts in Clark and Champaign counties, 10 are giving families the option to chose between in-person or online learning for the fall semester. Tecumseh Local Schools is the only district that will begin the year with remote learning, as of Thursday.

ExploreTecumseh schools shift to remote learning only, for fall reopening

However, some districts have stated they may utilize a hybrid learning option if schools must go to half capacity.

Six districts are having families and students commit to their learning choice for at least the first semester and may have the option to change their initial learning choice after that, including Greenon, Northwestern, Southeastern and Graham Local Schools, and Urbana City and Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools.

Patterson said whatever plan a district wants to start the school year with, they will likely continue with it for at least nine weeks after school begins.

“Whatever they start the school year with, if a family decides that their child is going to learn online at the beginning of school, they will have to go through at least nine weeks of that,” Patterson said.

This will allow districts to review how the model is going and decide if changes need to be made, Patterson said. He noted districts will have to decide at the beginning of the year which teachers will teach online and which will teach in person, meaning the district will have to figure out how to format each classroom based on capacity.

“There are a lot of moving parts and that’s why it’s not going to be changing very quickly once they determine how it’s going to start,” Patterson said.

Two districts are having families and students commit to their learning choice for the entire year, including Springfield City Schools and Clark-Shawnee Local Schools.

Clark-Shawnee Superintendent Brian Kuhn said, “families should plan for their selected learning model for the entire school year, with the possibility of re-evaluating at the end of the semester.”

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Schools that are allowing families to select in-person learning are asking parents and staff to assess symptoms by doing daily health wellness checks before their child leaves for school. Districts are also planning to make hand sanitizer readily available, increase sanitizing and disinfecting of all the buildings, classrooms and buses, requiring frequent hand washing and allowing for physical and social distancing when possible.

All school districts are following the same guidelines from the health district and CDC when it comes to their illness-related protocols, according to back-to-school plans released by local districts. Districts will also require families and staff to do daily health assessments, and anyone with symptoms, especially a fever at or above 100 degrees, must stay home or will be sent home.

If a student is exposed to the coronavirus or tests positive, families will be notified if it was a student in their child’s class and their child may need to be quarantined. Schools will work with the health district to determine next steps, according to local and state health guidelines.

Patterson said if a child tests positive for the virus, the whole class might not be notified as it could be a HIPPA violation to release individuals medical information to the public. Instead, individual children who were directly exposed will be notified instead and asked to quarantine.

“At some point, people are going to figure it out. People are going to talk on Facebook. Lots of things could happen but we are going to be very careful to handle that appropriately so that we are not unknowingly giving someone’s personal medical information to another group of people,” Patterson said.

For students that may be exposed or start feeling ill while at school, that student will be isolated in a separate room or location from other individuals while they wait to be picked up and they must quarantine for at least 14 days, according to local and state health guidelines. Those testing positive, must quarantine for at least 10 days.

Students can return to school if they have been fever- and symptom-free for at least 24 hours with no medicine, and at least 72 hours for Springfield City School students, at least 10 days have passed since symptoms appeared or without developing symptoms and/or had two negative tests 24 hours apart, according to local and state health guidelines.

Students who must quarantine or stay home, will still have the opportunity to participate and make up schoolwork, according to back-to-school plans released by local districts.

Face masks ‘essential piece of puzzle'

On Tuesday, Gov. Mike DeWine announced a new order that will require all of Ohio’s schoolchildren grades kindergarten through 12th grade to wear a face mask if their district chooses to return to in-person learning.

The order applies to private, charter and traditional public schools. It makes exceptions for children with certain medical conditions or behavioral issues.

“Frankly this gives us the best shot that we can,” DeWine said.

Despite the mandatory order, DeWine said it would be up to each individual district to decide how to enforce mask-wearing.

Prior to the governor’s order, all Clark and Champaign County public school districts had already announced that they would require face masks for all staff and for all students for the majority of the time they are in school.

Springfield, Clark-Shawnee, Greenon, Graham, Northeastern and Northwestern are also all requiring students to wear face masks while on buses, working one-on-one in small groups, walking in common areas and while entering and exiting buildings.

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Getting caught not wearing a face mask within the Springfield district will count as a dress code violation, Superintendent Bob Hill said.

“Unless an exception is made by the school administration, refusing to wear a face-covering will be treated as a dress code violation. Administrators will handle each situation individually with the student and family,” Hill said. “As with any directive or requirement within the student code of conduct, if a student refuses to follow directives given by the administration, it will be considered insubordination.”

ExploreSpringfield City Schools present initial fall reopening plans

Greenon will take a different approach. Instead, enforcement will be focused on educating the importance of wearing masks.

“Staff will encourage and educate students on the importance of wearing face coverings in accordance with local and state guidelines and requirements. The school will need families to help in this partnership as we work to control the spread of viruses in our school buildings,” Superintendent Darrin Knapke said.

ExploreGreenon schools announce two learning models for fall reopening plan

Northwestern Superintendent Jesse Steiner said face masks being worn by students are “an essential piece of the puzzle,” to flatten the pandemic curve.

“To ensure school continues without a long-term building/district closure again, we will all need to work together. Face coverings being worn by students are the most essential piece of the puzzle; especially given that we cannot guarantee six feet of social distancing in our schools,” he said.

ExploreNorthwestern schools to start fall in-person, provide online model

Districts face ‘learning curve'

In addition to face coverings, districts will also allow students to bring water bottles to class as drinking fountains will be unavailable, avoid or limit the use of shared materials, limit visitors, stagger class changes, assign seats in classrooms and on buses, keep doors open when possible, install barriers in some areas and rearrange classrooms to social distance students.

Patterson said it’s going to be “difficult,” for teachers to keep children socially distanced and wearing a face mask all day long.

“You can’t expect a first grader to wear a mask all day. You know, we can try. And some of them may be able to do that. Some of them may not be able to do that,” Patterson said. “For the most part, we are going to keep those kids as distanced apart as much as we can.”

Eight Clark and Champaign County school districts are basing their learning levels off of the Ohio Public Health Advisory System, including Clark-Shawnee, Greenon, Northeastern, Southeastern, Graham, Urbana, Mechaniscburg and Triad.

ExploreMechanicsburg superintendent: Schools to ‘operate at 100% capacity with safety protocols in place’
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Clark-Shawnee is using this system because “the goal of this plan is to create and maintain a school environment that places the health and safety of students and staff first and that minimizes potential risk factors for them,” Superintendent Brian Kuhn said.

Under the risk level guidelines system, each county is given a level number one through four. While the county is in level one or two, the district will operate at 100% capacity with safety and health protocols in place. Level three will mean schools will operate at approximately 50% capacity and utilize a hybrid learning option and level four will mean schools will be closed and students will utilize online learning.

ExploreSoutheastern intends to start fall with in-school, remote learning options

Since Gov. Mike DeWine debuted the guideline system on July 2, Clark County has spent a majority of the time in level 2, or the orange light level. However, the county did hit level 3, the red light level, on July 23 for the first time. It remained at the red light level for a week before dropping back down to level 2 on July 30.

Patterson said because a county can bump up and down between levels every week, basing school plans on the risk level guideline system is tricky.

“Because of what happened last week where we went to red and then this week we went to orange, it’s hard to bounce back every week,” Patterson said. “School just can’t respond that quickly it would just put them into chaos.”

Regardless of whatever plan a district has to go back-to-school, Patterson said this school year will have a “learning curve.”

“There will be a pretty steep learning curve as we come back to school,” Patterson said. “I will tell you the school districts and the administrators and the superintendents are working as hard as possible. They are trying. But there will be a definite learning curve in helping us understand how to deal with this in schools.”

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