Athens School Prepare To Go Online Should COVID Cause Another Disruption

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Should there be another COVID-related shutdown of Athens schools, the district will switch to temporary online instruction.

Schools in the Athens City School District have been closed since Friday because COVID-19 has temporarily sidelined nearly half of its bus drivers. The district is planning to reopen schools on Tuesday.

Superintendent Tom Gibbs said Wednesday that he has filed paperwork with the state that will allow the district’s schools to teach remotely the next time it faces a COVID-related disruption.

This is possible under a state provision that allows for what is called blended learning. This is typically used for classes that have both an in-person and online component and where the online portion is intended to be self-driven, with students working on their own time and at their own pace.

In other words, Gibbs said, it wasn’t designed or intended to be implemented full scale for all students and all classes.

However, a week and a half ago, the state Department of Education issued new guidance allowing schools to use this option to temporarily switch to online instruction due to COVID-related issues.

The emphasis is on temporary, Gibbs said. Last year the state Legislature passed an emergency measure allowing schools to offer online instruction throughout the school year. That’s no longer an option.

“We just don’t have that latitude this year,” he said. “That emergency authorization is gone.”

Under the new option, schools must primarily be offering in-person instruction. Gibbs said that had the state offered this new guidance a few weeks earlier, Athens schools could have been online this week instead of closed.

Gibbs said he has asked teachers to use the downtime this week to prepare to make a quick transition to online instruction.

The district already has enough Chromebooks for every student after last year and internet hotspots for students who need them. It has submitted a grant application to the state for funding to pay the online service providers.

 “If a month from now something happens and we have to go online for a week or two, we’re trying to gear up to make sure we can do that so that there’s not constant disruption to the education for our kids,” he said.

Another step the district could take to try to minimize COVID-19 disruptions is require vaccinations for staff and eligible students. Gibbs said nearly 90 percent of district staff are already vaccinated. Some percentage of those who are not might qualify for an exemption to a mandate for medical, religious or other reasons.

Gibbs said the district’s attorney says it could require eligible students to get vaccinated and that he expected some discussion about this at the September school board meeting.

“I’m sure we’ll be talking about that as will many other districts,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re ready to make a decision at this point.”

Meanwhile, the district is trying to hire two more bus drivers. This might seem like a fairly simple thing to do. But it’s not.

For starters, there’s a national shortage of drivers. This is affecting not just schools but city transit systems, including Athens Public Transit, which has been forced to suspend bus lines because it doesn’t have enough drivers.

This is part of a national shortage of applicants for all sorts of jobs. Employers have been forced to raise pay and benefits to attract applicants. Gibbs said the district is looking at raising pay for bus drivers.

But it can’t just do this unilaterally. The district’s bus drivers are part of a union that also represents other school employees. The district must negotiate an increase in driver pay with the union, and these negotiations could expand into discussions of pay raises for other employees, Gibbs said.

So it will take some time.

Another challenge is the nature of the job itself. Bus drivers work split shifts, with a few hours in the early morning and a few hours in the afternoon. It doesn’t add up to full-time work and it’s only during the school year.

Gibbs said the district tries to supplement by offering drivers extra work, such as athletic trips, field trips and other school events. But even that may not be attractive.

“Now you’re talking about working a split shift and then working evenings and weekends in addition to that in order to piece together kind of a 40 hour a week full-time living,” he said.

Because the job is transporting children, applicants must pass strict background checks, including their driving record going back many years and their criminal history. Gibbs said even misdemeanor offenses may be enough to disqualify an applicant.

The bottom line, he said, is “there are just a lot of rules and regs that have to be followed and a lot of hoops to jump through, so it takes time and we can’t hire every applicant that walks through the door.”

Once new drivers are hired, they first go through six to eight weeks of training to get the required certification, and they don’t get paid during this period, which is the case in many school districts, Gibbs said. He said Athens is looking into paying new hires during training as an incentive.