It’s all in for the Solon City School District for the upcoming academic year, and face coverings are required for all students and staff. But for those who may not feel ready to attend school in person, the district is also offering a virtual option.

According to a back-to-school presentation released earlier this month, Solon schools will delay the start of the school year to Aug. 26 to allow more time for building preparations and any additional training teachers and staff may need for the implementation of the all-in and virtual models.

Parents must complete the district’s In-School or Virtual Learning Parent Choice Form for each of their students by July 31.

Solon Superintendent Pro Tempore Fred Bolden said in an interview last week that the district opted for the all-in approach after layers of vetting and refining the district’s planning with input from parents, teachers and administrators, as well as guidance from public health experts like the American Association of Pediatrics, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and the Ohio Department of Health.

He said a majority of feedback from the district and the community supported bringing students back into the school buildings.

“We initially weren’t going to go with an all-in approach, and then we had seen guidance from the American Association of Pediatrics that said an all-in option was really important for the social-emotional wellbeing of the kids,” Mr. Bolden added. “So we took that information and we used that to say, let’s try to get all of our kids in. And for those families that can’t do that, we’ll give them the option to go remotely.”

The presentation highlighted two main priorities for a safe restart to school: the health and wellbeing of students and staff and high-quality education for both in-person and remote students.

Health and safety

The district will implement five layers of protection, according to the presentation, to ensure the safety of students and staff, including screening for COVID-19 symptoms before each school day from home, increasing handwashing protocol and facility sanitization, requiring face coverings, adding clear, physical barriers to all desks of students and teachers and maintaining at least 3 feet of distance throughout the school buildings and on buses.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests maintaining 6 feet of distance between individuals, the AAP states that 3 feet should suffice with the use of face coverings in schools.

The AAP’s school reopening guidance, “COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry,” states, “Evidence suggests that spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic.” The AAP suggests that adult staff still work to maintain 6-foot social distancing.

With the district’s requiring face coverings, Mr. Bolden said, 3-foot distancing will allow more students to return to school.

“We went with 3 feet because our preference was to get the students into schools,” Mr. Bolden said, explaining, however, that this distance requirement is just the starting point. “Depending on the number of kids that opt for virtual learning, that distance increases the more that opt out [of in-person learning].”

As for the face covering policy, Mr. Bolden said the district decided to require face coverings, such as masks or face shields, for anyone in the school buildings or buses. He said the district based this decision on studies from local, state and national health experts that support the use of face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“It doesn’t stop it, but it helps,” Mr. Bolden said. “And that’s why we’re making [wearing] a mask a requirement.

“We feel if we can get everybody masked, we can have school in person,” he added.

Mr. Bolden said the district will have an enforceable face-covering policy in effect before the start of the school year and will provide masks at all entrances and all buses throughout the district for anyone who does not have one.

To prevent the masks from becoming another source of contagion among younger students by means of swapping masks or not wearing them appropriately, Mr. Bolden said the district is encouraging parents to help their young students practice wearing masks before school starts. He said teachers will also work to educate young students on mask etiquette.

“We’re going to be training while we’re in school. We’re going to make the rules kind of like the rules you have about staying in your seat and keeping your hands to yourself and all of those good rules that we have for being good citizens in our classrooms,” Mr. Bolden explained. “We’re going to be encouraging those practices in our classrooms as they relate to social distancing, hand-washing, using hand sanitizer and wearing your masks.”

As for the mental wellbeing of students, the district is working to include more time for social-emotional support of all students, in-person or remote, to help address anxieties with coming back to school with uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social-emotional support includes stress-reducing or mindfulness activities that teachers can provide their students along with other district resources provided to families.

High-quality education

For students who opt for in-person instruction, they are required to attend every scheduled school day. This is the same for remote students, but from home via Google Meet.

Depending on how many students who opt for the virtual learning option, students will attend their in-person classes with necessary health and safety modifications in place along with their remote classmates, Mr. Bolden said, explaining that the district has the capabilities to allow in-person and remote students to learn together in the same classes.

“Right now, the way that it is set up to work is that [remote] kids will be learning in conjunction with their in-person peers in classrooms. We’ve upgraded all of our network infrastructure to handle the additional load of more live streaming,” he said. “But depending on the number of kids that opt for virtual, we may have classes of all virtual kids. It just depends on the numbers and how they work out.”

He said students learning remotely will follow the same daily schedules as their in-person peers and will have direct, live interaction with their peers and teachers. Students who opt for either model must commit to a full semester of their chosen model.

Should any school building need to make the switch to fully remote, Mr. Bolden said the district designed the plan to do this within one day and is even prepared to open entirely virtually if necessary.

“We’re monitoring the progression of the pandemic,” he said. “If the numbers say it’s not right to open, we’re going to start the year virtually. It all depends on where the numbers go in the next month because where we were a month ago versus where we are now is very different, and where we are a month from now could be different again.”

When asked about reopening schools while confirmed cases of COVID-19 are higher than when schools were ordered to close in mid-March, Mr. Bolden said the district is following the guidance of the county health board, Gov. Mike DeWine and AAP.

“We’re not epidemiologists,” he said, adding that many parents have also implored the district to reopen schools for in-person instruction for the betterment of their students’ education and emotional well-being, as well as their own ability to return to work. “We’re just trying to balance all of those things. It’s difficult. It’s a big challenge for us because we’re trying to keep the kids safe, we’re trying to support our families and our community and we’re trying to have the kids learn.”

He added that the district has received both positive and negative feedback about the plan.

“I just want to implore our community to understand that we’re really doing the best that we can for our kids and the community,” Mr. Bolden said. “I want everybody to understand that this is a very fluid process. Things are changing all the time. We are planning to be all in, but that can change, and we’re really working hard to plan for both of those eventualities.”

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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