Despite their reopening plan in place, West Geauga addressed some primary concerns with the restart of schools this month amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. An established committee intends to investigate the matters further.

During a regular Board of Education meeting Monday night via Zoom, Superintendent Richard Markwardt presented several concerns or suggestions that have come to the attention of district officials, including the effectiveness of temperature screening, establishing criteria for closing schools based on the percentage of COVID-19 cases, testing and contact tracing for the virus, bus seating and revamping the reopening plan altogether.

Currently, the district has approved in-person instruction for the entire district with the option available for remote learning. Last month, the board approved an entirely remote start for the district from Aug. 18 to Sept. 8.

Dr. Markwardt said he brought the concerns to the board’s attention not to make any decisions Monday night, but to make them aware of the discussions needing to take place.

The district’s school reopening “task force,” which was established in early July and is made up of community members, staff, BOE members and emergency responders, will take a closer look at the concerns and suggestions before the start of school, he said.

In addressing temperature screening, Dr. Markwardt said the arrival of students is “the biggest thing that we have to be mindful of here,” pointing out that large numbers of students enter the school buildings at once. He said the district may need at least five no-touch temperature kiosks that scan students as they enter the buildings, which can cost about $25,000 each.

He also pointed out that these would not prevent instances where students may be asymptomatic or don’t spike fevers until later in the day.

“A fever in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean a person does or doesn’t have COVID-19,” he said. “It’s something we’re going to look at, it’s something we’re going to talk about with the health department and also with the other members of our task force.”

Dr. Markwardt said an individual also brought up the suggestion of established criteria for closing schools based on the percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases regardless of county status within the color-coded state advisory system.

“That’s something that certainly can be established. I would want to do so in conjunction with the health department and also with some medical expertise,” he said, adding that the district also needs to be prepared to address more than just the virus itself in this regard.

“When the virus hits our schools, which I think it will – I think it’s naive to say that it won’t because we know it’s in the county,” he said, “one of the things we have to deal with is not only the virus itself, but I think it’s also the fear of the virus.”

He said fear of COVID-19 could impact both student and staff attendance when the district gets to a certain level of cases.

With reactions to COVID-19 varying greatly between individuals, he said, “Understandably, people don’t want to get it and find out whether they’re going to be asymptomatic or that they’re going to end up on a ventilator.”

As for testing and contact tracing for students, Dr. Markwardt said he does not believe this is something that would be feasible for the district.

“That’s something that I honestly can say I don’t think that we can do,” he said, explaining that medical professionals have informed him that unless students are hospitalized, “it’s very difficult to get a test for a student between the ages of 3 and 18,” even if they are registering COVID-19 symptoms.

He said this would impact how the district determined the criteria for closing schools based on the percentage of cases, possibly considering both confirmed and suspected cases when making such a decision.

To help prevent an outbreak that could close the schools, Dr. Markwardt said, masks have already been determined as required for all staff and students in grades kindergarten through 12, but bus seating is trickier due to the size of the district’s bus fleet and drivers available.

While some routes might be able to ensure one student to a seat, he said, this would be impossible for others within the district.

Dr. Markwardt said the suggestion to charter additional buses is not an impossibility, but it could be costly and require negotiations with the district union, as well as depend on the availability of charter buses.

Once the district has a firm idea on ridership counts, Dr. Markwardt said he would be able to provide more insight on busing.

As for revamping the reopening plan, Dr. Markwardt said this concern was brought up while the district was still in its planning stages.

“We are trying to do our best to follow the directives of the health department. I’m not stating that our plan is perfect, I’m not stating that there’s no risk for students who come to school with our plan in place,” he said. “There is some risk. We’ve tried our best to control that risk and to have our students and our staff safe when they return to school.”

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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