When the Kenston Local School District released its reopening plan last week, the district was met with a barrage of opposition from parents who were concerned about the safety of their children during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Kenston announced its Responsible Restart Plan on July 15, which calls for students going back to school full-time in person this fall. Parents who do not want their children in the buildings can opt into a fully remote plan that would be taught by the Educational Service Center of Northeast Ohio with oversight from Kenston educators.
The board moved the Monday meeting to the gym at Timmons Elementary School in anticipation of a large crowd with parents and community members in attendance.
Eight people shared comments and questions about the reopening plan on Monday, including Geauga County Health Commissioner Thomas Quade. Board President Beth Krause also responded to many questions that were submitted prior to the board meeting.
“Experts are telling us that it is essential that we return our students to in-person education, so we have to figure out how to do that. People are scared and they should be, COVID-19 is serious,” Dr. Krause said. “But as a school board and a school district, we know that we are essential and we have to figure out how to get our kids back into these buildings with their teachers. COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Dr. Krause said that she received comments from the community about a variety of topics, including safety in the buildings, the virtual learning option, busing, quarantine protocols and the levy slated for 2021.
Bainbridge resident Keith Semrau, who has three young children in the Kenston system, said that he appreciates the district’s time and effort, but expected more communication with parents during this time filled with uncertainty.
“The fact that it was all in person took a lot of people off guard, especially with cases spiking over recent weeks, so it’s concerning from that point,” Mr. Semrau told the Times. “And the plan of bringing in third parties to do online classes is concerning, it might be a great system and it might be a great project, but we spend a lot of money on taxes here locally, so it’s surprising that we might have to go that route.”
Dr. Krause said that Kenston has not yet finalized its policy, but students will be expected to wear a mask unless there is a valid reason not to do so. Regarding the online education option, Dr. Krause said that it is through the educational service center but overseen by Kenston teachers. The students would still have access to Kenston resources and the academic standards would be the same, although she said the sequencing may be different. Elementary students who opt into the online learning option must stay for the entire school year with no option to move into the in-person program and middle and high school students have to stay until the end of the fall semester due to scheduling conflicts, according to Superintendent Nancy Santilli. The deadline to opt into virtual learning is July 27.
Families have the ability to opt out of busing, and the children on buses may be grouped together to sit with their siblings or other children that they already play with. Dr. Krause said that students and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic will continue to come to school, according to the current policy, which she said is “not uncommon.”
In addition, Dr. Krause said that some residents have threatened to vote down an upcoming levy if the children are forced to go back to school in person this fall. She said that although a levy is important to the future of the district, it is not a priority at this time.
Bainbridge resident Michael Cooper said having a choice in their children’s education is vital.
“I think it’s important because America is supposed to be about choice. It’s supposed to be about choosing to do what you feel is right for your kids,” he said. “Forcing people to come to school if they don’t want to isn’t right. Forcing people to stay home when their kids can’t learn that way is also not right.”
Last week Mrs. Santilli shared a video detailing the district’s plans for reopening. The start date of school is now Aug. 17 to allow for professional development days for faculty to prepare for the opening.
Bainbridge resident Gary Jones pointed out that local businesses and industries still have regulations in place to limit the number of people in a space and questioned why schools can go back at 100 percent occupancy. Board Vice President Neysa Gaskins said that parents are concerned because neighboring counties are colored red for level three on Gov. Mike DeWine’s four-level COVID-19 alert system even though Geauga is still orange, meaning it has fewer cases.
“We’re likely to follow the trend, but we’re likely to lie behind the trend a little bit,” Mr. Quade said, adding that the state metrics may apply to a county with a larger population than Geauga.
Similar to other district’s reopening plans, Mrs. Santilli said that parents should check their children for a fever and other COVID-19 symptoms before each school day. There will be 3-6 feet of social distancing between desks, in addition to desk shields and plexiglass dividers. Mrs. Santilli said that there will be one-way traffic patterns, the district is ramping up its sanitation procedures and there are no field trips planned for this year.
“We remain steadfast in caring for our students,” she said. “We know that students and teachers are vital to this community and we want to work on one goal – caring for their safety and well-being and education. These have been unusual times, and we have to work together.”
The next school board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 17 at 7 p.m.