After months of following guidance from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Orange City School District is considering veering away from the county’s recommendation.

Since July, the Orange Board of Education has followed county guidance of maintaining virtual learning only if the county is at the second highest level three (red status) on the state’s four-level Public Health Advisory System. The system is based on the number of new coronavirus cases in the county.

The Orange district has been in a fully virtual model since the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, but planned to implement a hybrid model, a mix of in-person and virtual learning, this past Monday. The county increased from level two (orange) to level three (red) on Oct. 15, so Orange switched back to the virtual model for this week.

At the school board meeting on Monday, the board came to a consensus that Superintendent Lynn Campbell could move forward with discussions to possibly open school buildings to students for classes despite the red status of the county.

“As of Friday, we find ourselves in Orange [City School District] on an island. I’ll own the island, it’s self-created. I agree, from July through now I’ve been on board, red equals remote,” Dr. Campbell said. “But now I’m looking around us [at other school districts], and even with the county being red, and their informal recommendation, I feel the need to make some changes and get kids back in person.”

Parents held a protest on Monday in front of the Orange Board of Education office demanding that the district open classroom buildings to students.

At the board meeting, BOE President Beth Wilson-Fish asked what needs to happen for the students to come back in person. She said that she wants the children to have in-person learning opportunities but also expressed concerns about the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Dr. Campbell said that the work that the district put into developing the hybrid model was thorough and he would feel comfortable sending his own kids back to school under this plan.

On Sept. 14, the Cuyahoga health board released guidance for schools to reopen if the county was at level two (orange) for at least four weeks and had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than 5 percent.

Board member Melanie Weltman questioned if the county’s guidance is the best path to follow.

“With the current status, is that realistic?” Ms. Weltman said. “That’s the other part. Will we get back to orange? I don’t know.”

Board member Jeff Leikin said that he is strongly in support of implementing the hybrid plan, as early as next week. He noted that 70 percent of parents indicated a preference to come to school in person. Mr. Leikin said that he is concerned about how well students will perform on the SAT, ACT and other standardized tests after learning remotely.

“If we don’t go to hybrid now, we’re not going to,” he said. “The county is going to get worse. Winter’s coming, the flu season’s coming. We owe it to our 70 percent of parents that we represent to get them back in school.”

Board Vice President Rebecca Boyle addressed some information circulating in the community that the board wants the students to stay virtual and it is easier for the teachers to teach from home. She said that is “nonsense” and everybody wants the children back in person.

Board member Deborah Kamat, who joined the meeting by phone, said that the district should afford parents as many options as possible.

Dr. Campbell had a meeting with the Orange teachers’ union on Tuesday. The agreement they ratified earlier this year states that if the county is red, school will be remote, he said. There has been an “unexpected urgency” since last week when the county changed from orange to red and other local schools did not switch back to their virtual models. The board agreed to revisit the agreement with teachers during the upcoming Oct. 26 regular meeting.

Julie Hullett has been a reporter for the Chagrin Valley Times since August of 2018 and covers Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Orange, Pepper Pike and Woodmere. She graduated from John Carroll University with a journalism degree in 2018.

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