The West Geauga Local School District is planning to implement two models for reopening schools for the 2020-21 academic year this August, giving families the option to choose between entirely online or onsite.

Superintendent Richard Markwardt presented the plan during the July 13 West Geauga Board of Education meeting last week. Schools reopen for the district, according to the board-approved calendar, Aug. 18, he said. Before then, parents will need to choose the appropriate model for their students.

Dr. Markwardt said the district addressed “assumptions” that acted as starting points for developing the plan. These assumptions included the start date for schools, the district’s need of support from staff and the community, the existence of COVID-19 without a vaccine along with related uncertainties, necessary social distancing protocols and the district’s need to implement onsite and online learning models with the proper technology to back this up.

“We knew we’d have to have an onsite plan for the kids who were returning to the school buildings, and we know that we have to have a remote plan for those students and for staff who may not be able to return,” he said, explaining that the remote model would be for students and staff who may have underlying health conditions or students whose parents don’t want them to return to the school buildings due to protocols in place or uncertainties with COVID-19.

Dr. Markwardt said the district looked at Gov. Mike DeWine’s five main guidelines that he presented earlier this month for reopening schools for onsite instruction. These guidelines include assessing for symptoms, enhancing efforts and opportunities for students and staff to wash and sanitize their hands, thoroughly cleaning the school buildings, practicing social distancing and implementing a face-covering policy by the board.

Dr. Markwardt said students who opt for in-person instruction will come to school five days a week, and both students and teachers will follow social distancing protocol. To meet Gov. DeWine’s guidelines, the schools will have sanitizing stations in the classrooms for hand washing and sanitizing, 6-foot perimeters around desks with class sizes between 17 and 20 students and additional teaching and custodial staff to support smaller class sizes and more frequent and thorough cleaning of the schools.

Mask policy in works

As for a student mask policy, Dr. Markwardt said this is still in the works and he could not say what the ruling would be just yet.

State guidelines recommend masks for students in grades three through 12, but Dr. Markwardt said he has heard from some districts that even younger students should wear masks. He said this idea, however, may bring more cause for concern.

“I can’t tell you what ours (student mask policy) will say, but the concern, I think, with the really young kids is that oftentimes the masks could become agents of contamination, not preventives,” he said, explaining that the younger children may swap masks, wear them incorrectly, take them off or even throw them on the floor.

In a July 16 update to the district, Director of Technology and Operations Sean Whelan presented details of school operations during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that included information on school transportation.

According to Mr. Whelan’s presentation, buses will allow no more than two students to a seat with family members required to sit together to allow possible accommodations to single riders, hand sanitizing stations will be installed throughout all buses and students will take their seats starting from the back of the bus. Face covering details were not yet available with information based on upcoming board policy.

Dr. Markwardt said the district will also “severely limit” visitor access to each school building, and each building will also have two clinics. One clinic would be for standard first aid and the other for any students who may “harbor some sort of contagious situation,” he said, adding that a student who exhibits any COVID-19 symptoms will be sent home, “and we’d have to have a clear, clean bill of health before the kid came back [to school].”

Students who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to quarantine for 14 days. Students and staff exposed to that student will be expected to do the same.

“Then we have to be prepared to address potential flare ups,” Dr. Markwardt added. “The state hasn’t defined [flare ups], but I expect that there may be some sort of quantifiable criteria established whereby the student population reaches a certain number of kids who have COVID-19 that the school will be closed for a thorough cleaning and a quarantine period.”

Remote learning plan

For the online model, Dr. Markwardt said with more time to plan, the platform will be more standardized than in March when buildings were closed without much warning by the state.

“[In the] spring, when we went to a remote learning plan, we did it overnight. Obviously now with the advantage of time to plan it, it will look somewhat different than it looked in the spring. It will be more scheduled, it will be more developed and it will be more time intensive for students,” he said.

When the state mandated school closures in mid-March through the end of the year, Dr. Markwardt said, the online learning plan for students varied between teachers and classrooms. With the summer for planning, he said there will be a more comprehensive schedule for teachers and students.

Nancy Benincasa, assistant superintendent and director of curriculum and instruction, was expected to have a presentation available to the district earlier this week for online instruction, which was to include information on learning standards, models and delivery methods, assessments, the school day, elective courses and attendance.

After this presentation, Dr. Markwardt said parents will need to select which learning model in which their students will participate so the district can properly set up classes.

He explained that the district chose not to pursue a blended learning model, where students come to school part time and take the remainder of their classes online, so it could put stronger focus on the two options provided.

“We’ve chosen not to do that. We feel that we can do two and do them well,” Dr. Markwardt said. “And we feel that if we try to do a third, we’re stretching our resources even thinner than they’re already stretched.”

He said while there is the risk of exposure to COVID-19 with students coming to school five days a week, that same risk is still prevalent with students coming to school just one day a week.

“At this stage of the game, what we’ve looked at is our ability as a school district to offer quality services. And what we’re looking at is traditional old school services with social distancing,” he said, adding that for students onsite, the district is working to run schools “as close to usual as possible.”

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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