Athens City School District Board Wrestles With Questions Of Safety As COVID-19 Pandemic Worsens

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A question asked at a school board meeting Thursday night revealed the extent to which the coronavirus has made a mockery of planning.

Tom Gibbs, ACSD Superintendent
Tom Gibbs, ACSD Superintendent in remote interview with WOUB News earlier this year.

Can schools remain open safely for nine more days of instruction?

Athens City School District board members spent an hour and a half grasping for a decent answer to that question and ended up right where they started.

The answer: Yes, but that could change at any minute.

The coronavirus has shortened everyone’s focus. School board members are more accustomed to talking in terms of school years, not days.

The question about the nine days stemmed from Superintendent Tom Gibbs’ decision Wednesday to continue in-person instruction until the start of winter break and then shift to remote-only instruction for the first three weeks of school after the break. In-person instruction would resume in late January.

Gibbs said he made the decision after consulting with local health officials.

This included O’Bleness Hospital President Mark Seckinger, Athens City-County Health Department Administrator Jack Pepper and County Health Commissioner James Gaskell.

Gibbs said they agreed it was a good idea to wait for a few weeks after winter break to resume in-person classes. Travel over the holidays could result in more infections, and waiting a few weeks will allow time for these infections to develop into symptoms before students start coming back into the classroom.

They also agreed that it was safe to continue with in-person instruction until the start of winter break. And Gibbs said he wanted to give those students whose parents opted for in-person instruction as much class time as possible.

He also wants to give families time to prepare for the temporary return to remote-only learning.

Parents who work in food service, at grocery stores, at retail stores and at many other businesses where they don’t have the option of working from home will need time to make childcare arrangements.

In-person instruction currently goes on four days a week, which meant as of Thursday night there were nine days of instruction left until the break.

Board members seemed to agree that Gibbs’ decision was the right call but were still uneasy about it. They wondered if it would be better to stop in-person instruction right away to err on the side of caution.

Gibbs indicated nothing was set in stone, and if things get worse in the coming days he can end in-person instruction earlier.

“If [health officials] say pull back on the reins, I’m not going to hesitate,” he said. “The last thing I want to have occur is a significant outbreak of anything on my watch.”

Board member Rusty Rittenhouse noted that it had previously been decided that a decision to stop in-person instruction would hinge on when Athens County reached a certain number of COVID-19 cases per capita.

He asked why health officials would still be open to letting in-person instruction continue after the county has blown past that number.

The decision was made on the fact that while the infection numbers are up, the local healthcare system is not overwhelmed at this point, Gibbs responded. This is what drives a lot of the decisions when it comes to pandemic restrictions.

Board president Sean Parsons said he worried that some people coming to school may already be infected with the virus but not showing symptoms yet and could infect others over the next two weeks.

That is a possibility given that several staff members and students at Athens schools have been diagnosed with COVID-19 over the past few weeks. But so far in only one case was the source of the infection traced back to the school, according to Gibbs. He attributed this to the strict safety guidelines the schools are following.

Rittenhouse brought up a recent survey by the teachers’ union, in which a high percentage of teachers who responded said they wanted to return now to remote-only instruction. He said he would like to know more about their reasons why, which were not addressed in the survey, and whether their concerns could be addressed in some way.

Gibbs said he would follow up on the survey. He said he’s getting pressure from those who want to end in-person instruction immediately to those who want their children to have even more time in the classroom.

“I don’t know that there’s any one right single answer,” he said.

Board member Dave Hayden said that ultimately the board had little choice but to trust in the advice of local health experts.

He said that if this were a wealthy suburb, a decision to shift back to remote-only instruction would be easier. But in the Athens area, the schools play an important role in the social safety net.

Hayden said he was especially concerned about children who don’t have adequate support at home. He noted that before the return to partial in-person instruction several weeks ago, many students were not tuning in to their online classes, perhaps because no one at home was enforcing this.

Some of these children may already fall into the at-risk category, and if they’re not going to a classroom with a teacher, it’s possible that no other adult outside the home is seeing them on a regular basis.

Parsons said he wanted to be sure that parents who signed up for in-person instruction but now want to keep their children home because of the rising virus caseload will have their needs met.

Gibbs said that parents who chose in-person instruction for their children cannot switch now because teachers would have to make special arrangements to teach these children online while at the same time teaching their in-person students.

“I think it’s an impossible task to ask the teachers to do hybrid and online at the same time,” he said.

Gibbs did say that students signed up for in-person instruction will not be marked absent if their parents decide for safety reasons to keep them at home between now and winter break. But it will be up to their teachers to determine how they want to accommodate these students when it comes to providing instruction.

The district’s teachers, Gibbs said, “have bent over backwards to do everything they can for children and families.”