All students in the West Geauga Local School District, whether they opted for in-person or virtual instruction for the upcoming school year, may be looking at a remote start for the first three weeks of school.
The district also is requiring facemasks for all students as advised by the state during the coronavirus pandemic.
The West Geauga Board of Education approved the district’s two-option reopening plan Monday night in a special Zoom meeting, which garnered more than 200 participants. The plan gives students and families the choice between returning to school buildings for in-person instruction or learning from home with the remote model, the Online Virtual Program.
Superintendent Richard Markwardt presented a refined reopening plan during the Monday meeting, after having presented the initial plan on July 13. In his new presentation, he outlined in detail expectations for students and parents or caregivers and the expectations for staff and administrators for each aspect of the in-person and remote models.
For the in-person plan, he covered etiquette and procedures for pick-up and drop-off, classrooms, specials, hallways and common areas, transportation, meetings and conferences, restrooms and lunch, as well as what happens when someone exhibits COVID-19 symptoms, health services available and social-emotional support. Upon the board’s approval, the presentation was to be made available on the district website, WestG.org, along with a live question and answer page to help answer any outstanding questions with regular updates.
Added to this reopening plan, Dr. Markwardt made the recommendation to start school remotely for all students from Aug. 18 to Sept. 7.
While the board approved what Dr. Markwardt called a “blended approach” for the start of school, their approval of the remote start is contingent upon the approval of a memorandum of understanding with the West Geauga Education Association.
“They did not voice any opposition to my sharing this with the board tonight, but I will show them the same respect that I show the board when I say I can’t assume what the board will do until the board votes,” Dr. Markwardt said. “I have to say the same with regard to the union. I await their ratification decision.”
Dr. Markwardt said reasons for this remote start include allowing more time to monitor the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic – especially with the increase in cases and the upcoming Great Geauga County Fair, permitting any revisions to the reopening plan as needed, reducing the need for calamity days due to high temperatures with face masks and to afford time to introduce new students and families to the school buildings, noting that former Newbury Local Schools students, particularly, may have a harder time adjusting to new school buildings amidst the stress of a pandemic.
As of Monday night, Dr. Markwardt said of students and parents who have selected their preferred model so far, 80 percent chose in-person instruction and 20 percent chose the remote plan.
Under the in-person model, Dr. Markwardt explained health and safety protocols that will be in place, including maintaining at least 6 feet of distance when possible, wearing face coverings for both students and staff, conducting student wellness checks, proper handwashing and sanitization and even requiring students to clean and sanitize their own working space before leaving classrooms throughout the day.
This in-person model also includes a remote plan separate from the remote learning model where students will follow their same schedule with the same teachers, just online.
“It would be essentially the same schedule that you have when you’re in school, but it would be handled remotely from home. You’d have to sign on, the teacher would have to see that you were there, the teacher would be maintaining attendance and then the class would proceed,” he explained, adding that teachers could also implement offline time so students can work independently away from their computers.
Dr. Markwardt said the virtual start to the school year will be similar to this with modifications, explaining that the in-person teachers will work from the school buildings. He added that this remote start to school also gives the teachers more time to adjust to the layout of their classroom, noting that the removal of most furniture to accommodate the 6-foot spacing and reducing surfaces that would need sanitizing may be jarring to some at first.
For students who opted into the remote model, “this would not affect them in the least,” Dr. Markwardt said.
Students who opt for the online program will have to commit to a full semester, with the first semester from Aug. 18 to Dec. 17, he said.
He explained that the Online Virtual Program will run similar to the schedule of in-person classes, but will be 100-percent online and consist of only online students with rare exceptions for “slash courses” that may require a mix of online and in-person students due to class size or composition, like AP courses or band.
Dr. Markwardt said the semester-long commitment is not because the district cannot move seamlessly from online to in-person or vice versa, “but we are trying to gain a count so that we know that we can socially distance our students who are on site.”
As for the mask policy, Dr. Markwardt said all students will be required to wear masks from kindergarten through 12th grade.
He said students will be required to wear a mask prior to getting on the bus and before entering the school. “Honestly, if the student doesn’t have a mask, the student’s not going to be getting on the bus. And I know that sounds harsh, but we have to be careful,” he said. Under the policy, if a student does not have a mask, the district can provide one.
“The guidelines that we had [from the Ohio Department of Health] insisted upon masks or face coverings for students in grades three and above,” Dr. Markwardt said. The district “wrestled” with the difficulties of masks on younger children, he added, “but we also had a real tough time – when we know that face masks are designed not to prevent the acquisition of the virus, but to inhibit its spread – we had a real tough time telling our kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers that the students who might be sneezing on them would not be required to wear face mask.”
Under the policy, there are accommodations for students and staff who may not be able to wear face masks due to health conditions or instructional needs. Face shields may be an alternative to masks under these circumstances.