Chagrin Falls, we have a problem.

Planning to reopen schools is like figuring out how to fix a craft in flight, Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools Superintendent Robert Hunt said, referencing the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission and its following 1995 film hit starring Tom Hanks.

Nonetheless, the school administrator presented preliminary plans for a potential blended learning environment come fall after schools across Ohio received draft plans from the state for reopening with the COVID-19 pandemic. Buildings were closed by the state in mid-March with students completing the academic year through virtual classrooms.

The state plans so far include requiring masks, supplying copious amounts of hand sanitizer and maintaining 6 feet of distance between all students and staff, among other precautions. Assuming the most restrictive scenarios, Dr. Hunt presented three options for a 2020-21 school year last week during the June 17 BOE meeting.

“This took a lot of grit, it took a lot of innovation [and] creative thinking to be successful,” Dr. Hunt said of the lunar mission, which needed to make its return to earth just two days in after the failure of an oxygen tank, “and I think that’s very, very much what’s happening within our district in terms of our ability to reenter safely and responsibly into the [upcoming] school year.”

To avoid being overwhelmed with the unknowns and what-ifs, Dr. Hunt said the district currently is focusing on what it does know: that school will start in August, the district will need strong partnerships with its staff and community, COVID-19 will exist in the fall – most likely without a vaccine – and the district will have to require some level of social distancing, which will impact how many students can enter the buildings.

He added that the district also knows it will receive new technology to help with this by allowing live streaming from classrooms, information of which he could not yet share.

“I hope to be able to speak to this specifically at the July meeting, but we are looking at improving our technology to provide a more synchronous education and opportunities where students can log in from home and be a part of the classroom,” Dr. Hunt said. “We believe that will be independently funded outside of the school district.”

The three potential options at which the district is looking include:

A “brick-to-click” model, where students are in school but may be required to swiftly move to virtual classrooms in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak or quarantine requirements.

A “click-to-brick” model, where students are virtual and are able to move into the buildings.

A blended model that implements both online and in-person instruction.

Dr. Hunt emphasized that the plans are preliminary and may look entirely different by the start of the school year depending on what further guidance schools receive from the state.

He focused primarily on the blended approach for reopening and broke the methods down by each school building. He noted that the district may have to be split by county for both transportation methods and time spent in the classroom, looking at a morning, midday and afternoon bus schedule and half days for many students. The district includes both Cuyahoga and Geauga communities.

The schools would not provide lunch under this half-day format, Dr. Hunt said, with the exception of free and reduced lunches, and transportation would not include grades nine through 12.

Mike Daugherty, director of technology and information systems, clarified that for any students who are in school for a full day, lunch would be provided and that the district is looking at methods to provide this in a safe manner. For instance, students may select their lunches ahead of time and have their meals delivered to their classrooms.

Dr. Hunt said when there is more clarity in what reopening the schools will look like, the district plans to have a “COVID-19 registration” for parents to commit to whether they want a completely virtual classroom for their students and whether they will rely on school transportation.

“We’re going to need to talk to or have feedback from every parent in our district to be able to pull this off and effectively schedule,” he said.

Blended by building

For Gurney Elementary School, students would come in five days a week for in-person instruction, but for half days with Cuyahoga County students attending classes in the morning and Geauga County students attending classes in the afternoon, Dr. Hunt explained. For the other half of their days, the students would attend virtual classrooms from home. Special education students would attend school in person for full days. He said students would also rotate through their ENCORE blocks one of those five days throughout the week.

Dr. Hunt said staff felt it was important to see students every day, which is why the district has selected this as a potential model.

“For the instructional side for continuity, but also just the ability to talk to [students], develop a relationship, if there is potential intervention, it was really important that [teachers] see – especially in elementary through middle school – students every single day,” he said.

For the Intermediate School, students would start earlier so the district can effectively pull off their transportation, otherwise the model remains similar to that of the elementary school, Dr. Hunt said.

Mr. Daugherty added that students will have face-to-face, online instruction specifically for their science and social studies classes and that there will be designated teachers for those online classes.

For middle school, things start looking a little different. Students are still given half days in the buildings, but only have a select number of their classes each day throughout the week. Dr. Hunt also said there could be more virtual instruction happening.

“We haven’t totally vetted out what that would look like,” he said. “We’re going to have to work through the design of this and what it looks like instructionally, but it’s essentially larger blocks of time for our students.”

Jennifer Bencko, director of pupil services, specified that for remote learning, middle schoolers will still have to log in at specific times for attendance and interaction with their teachers as if they were in the building attending an in-person classroom.

“We’re not going to expect kids to be logged on for the whole 75 minutes [of their class], it would more so be a part way through that block,” Mrs. Bencko said. “The teacher, after having provided instruction and setting the in-person students on task, would then flip to the virtual classroom.”

As for the high school, Dr. Hunt said the model will look very similar to the middle school due to shared staff. The biggest difference with the high school, he added, would be a designated remote learning day mid-week for all students.

Students would be responsible for moving through a virtual eight-period schedule that day, Dr. Hunt said. He added that this time would also provide opportunities for teachers to work individually with students who may need more time on projects as well as time for teacher planning.

Dr. Hunt and Mrs. Bencko confirmed that for both the middle and high schools, students would effectively attend each class in person once through the course of the week with the remainder being virtual.

Board member Sharon Broz asked what methods would be in place to make sure staff doesn’t work “day and night” to accommodate in-person and online instruction simultaneously.

Dr. Hunt said the mid-week virtual block is expected to help avoid overworking the staff by giving them the time for mid-week planning. He added that the school day could also start a little later to give teachers more time before classes begin.

Next steps to consider

Dr. Hunt is aiming to have presentable plans in place by early July depending on when the Ohio Department of Health provides final guidelines for reopening. This way, he said, the district can get through its COVID-19 registration process.

Aug. 1 is when Dr. Hunt said he would like to have a clear plan for opening schools this fall.

Mrs. Broz asked Dr. Hunt what he thought the district’s stance would be if Gov. Mike DeWine is to state that masks are suggested but not mandatory for schools.

“I have not vetted that with my administrators,” Dr. Hunt said. “We are looking at different things that could provide separation in classrooms right now. I would say the least restrictive we would be is masks on in the bus [and] in the hallways getting to class, then when appropriately distanced apart, potentially allowing students to bring those masks down.”

He specified that the board should not consider this scenario as a final recommendation, pointing out that this plan is just “round one” of a series of conversations to be expected over the next month and a half.

And just because students may be able to attend their classes in person this fall, Dr. Hunt reminded the board that the district would need to be prepared to switch to 100-percent virtual learning for some buildings or classrooms depending on COVID-19 outbreaks and quarantine requirements.

Mrs. Garvey said the district is looking at possibly having families take a pledge to check temperatures every day to ensure they are not sending their students to school sick to reduce the risk of virus outbreaks.

“We’re trying to take the approach that there’s opportunity in this and that we’re reimagining what school might look like going forward,” Dr. Hunt said. While half-day models may not be popular, he said, “I think there is some real opportunity in improving what we do educationally that is going to pay benefits, certainly, as we go forward.”

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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