Pickerington Schools Eye Spring Return

Pickerington Schools is considering a return to full-week, in-person classes after Spring Break. The district is also contemplating how to restore graduations and proms.

“We think that gives our staff, students and families enough time to plan,” Superintendent Chris Briggs said. “We don’t want to pull the rug out from underneath our families without giving them due notice. I’m optimistic about what the Spring holds for our kids.  It is difficult for some of our families, especially our working families, and the mental health issues our kids are facing are real, but hopefully we made the best decisions with the information we’ve had and we will continue to do that.”

Last fall, Pickerington Schools offered families the choice between enrolling their students in a Virtual Learning Academy (VLA) or attending a hybrid model of education in which the students would attend two days of in-person learning and three days of studying from home. These programs reduced the number of students in the school buildings by more than half to allow for social distancing.

Once COVID no longer posed a significant danger, then the hybrid students would transition back to attending classes every day at their school building.

It is now February, and the schools remain on the hybrid schedule.

“I know the frustration is out there with some community members about getting the kids back to school,” said Briggs. “Some still feel that we should be in an all-virtual environment and some feel that the hybrid is working.  So, I want everyone to understand that we do hear you. I make a request that we show a lot of grace and patience. I know patience is wearing thin with everyone, but we are working through this as we go and so we will do the best we can.”

Parent Sara VanValkenburg has had enough.  At Monday night’s school board meeting, VanValkenburg demanded that the administration stop catering to “the voices of fear” and return students to classrooms.

“In the mental health arena, secondary students who are dealing with isolation and distance are turning inward in often unhealthy ways,” VanValkenburg said. “Primary and Middle School students are struggling with the quote “routine” of switching back and forth everyday while their parents are dealing with the stress and life-altering realities of parenting while trying to fulfill job responsibilities or paying thousands of dollars in unexpected childcare costs.  All of this to maintain the incomplete education that our students are receiving this year.”

VanValkenburg was referencing the many parent and teacher groups who have pleaded for the end of all in-person classes until the COVID pandemic is under control.

At the previous board meeting on January 25, Heather Tinsley, president of the Pickerington Education Association (PEA), had asked the administration to move all classes to digital learning. PEA is the union that represents all the district’s certified employees – mostly teachers but also nurses, guidance counselors, etc.

“Nobody wants things back to normal more than Pickerington’s dedicated employees, but safety must be the priority,” Tinsley said. “In these times we look to our leaders to help guide us and keep us safe.  This moment demands all of us to make difficult choices that will allow our students, staff and community to stay healthy.”

This was the second time Tinsley addressed the board about problems with the current hybrid learning system, but this time she brought with her letters from 34 of the 685 union members. The letters listed a variety of reasons why these teachers felt that in-person learning was currently neither safe nor effective. 

“The number one reason that we chose teaching as a profession is because we want to be able to touch the lives of children,” Tinsley read from one letter. “Many of us would tell you that our first choice is to have our full classrooms of children with us each day doing what we do best.  Never did we dream the peril that would present us.”

The concerns included: missing multiple weeks due to quarantine, not enough substitutes to cover classrooms (especially in the high schools), and the fear of bringing COVID home to their families. Tinsley herself missed a lot of work when she became very ill with the disease late last year.

“We are caring, loving, giving people who would do anything for our students,” Tinsley said. “One teacher told me ‘we are loyal to a fault, work innumerable hours well beyond what we get paid for, participate in our community and yet we do it all in spite of the lack of respect and appreciation we get from our superiors.’”

Tinsley read a statement from another teacher who said that classrooms where students were once loud and energetic have turned quiet – as if the masks had stolen their voices.

“We are working hard to restore these voices and at the same time emphasize the importance of following the guidance given to us by science.”

The administration heard similar complaints from the union representing the non-certified workers when their president Joie Moore addressed the board in December.

VanValkenburg, who teaches at Granville High School, disputed the idea that staff are endangered.

“By looking at our own district’s data and the data of Ohiocovid.org, we can acknowledge that COVID does not pose a serious threat to most of our students.  For those that may be more at risk because of health issues, the VLA option exists,” VanValkenburg said. “As for teachers and staff, the limited studies that have been done indicate that teachers contract COVID at a rate not much different than other adults.”

The median age for COVID mortalities is far above the age of almost all active teachers, VanValkenburg said.

In September, the Center for Disease Control listed the median age for COVID mortalities to be 37 years, down from 46 years last May.

“As a teacher myself who has been teaching in-person, five days a week all year long, I would suggest that those teachers who say they are quote “in peril going to school every day” are not being truthful with themselves or others,” VanValkenburg said.  “Meanwhile, students and families are struggling.”

As of publication, the 43147 ZIP code, which covers a large portion of the school district, had 3,665 total cases of COVID since the outbreak, and Pickerington Schools had 30 cases (0.74% of the total student and staff population). The total number of active cases in Fairfield County was 2,146. Note: these numbers were reported incorrectly in an earlier version of the story.

“In rare cases, we have had students who have been impacted by COVID-19 on more than one occasion,” said Crystal Davis, public relations coordinator for Pickerington Schools. “It is worth noting that exposure and transmission in the school setting, however, has only occurred in a very small number of cases. The spread that we see is occurring away from the day-to-day classroom setting.”

Recently, Ohio changed the rules on who must quarantine, so there will be a lot fewer students being asked to stay home.

“If a student or staff member is wearing a mask in the classroom, that student will still be identified as a ‘close contact’ but would not have to quarantine from school,” said Bob Blackburn, PLSD executive director of special projects. “So those students are able to remain in classrooms as long as the safety procedures were in place with the masks.”

As for the lack of substitutes, that issue has been plaguing the schools for many years.

“Such is the case with many other districts, finding an adequate number of substitutes to cover staff absences has been challenging, but this is not unique to this pandemic,” Davis said. “While the impact has been a bit greater during the 2020-2021 school year, the issue of not having enough subs has occurred in every preceding school year for at least the past six years.”

The district created the Flexible Learning 2.0 Plan to provide guidelines on how classes should be taught depending on the severity of the pandemic.  For instance, currently the district is operating at level “Yellow” which means that the students who did not opt for the Virtual Learning Academy follow a hybrid model of two days in class and three days logging into lessons from home.

If the pandemic gets better, the schools will lower the threat level to “Green” and return to classes at least four days a week.  If the pandemic gets worse, the schools will raise the threat level to “Orange” and some buildings (most likely the high schools and junior highs) would switch to all-virtual learning while other buildings remained hybrid.

School Board Member Lori Sanders said that by remaining at “Yellow” instead of switching back and forth from virtual to full-time, the district has provided the students with consistency.

“It may not be where every single person believes we should be, but I believe we supported the position where we are at,” Sanders said. ‘We know not everybody will be happy in this situation – we’re not happy. Things are not normal and all we can do is hope to move in that direction.”

It is important to note that the district’s color system is not the same as the one that the state of Ohio uses to illustrate COVID threat levels.

“Our goal has always been to get our students back into school as soon as it’s safe,” Briggs said. “We don’t have a magic wand here to tell you what date that is, but we do have a plan and we’ve had that plan since day one when we switched to our hybrid learning model and our virtual learning model.  We will give our families time (to prepare for a transition). I think that’s an important piece too.”

The schools have no rubric to quantify each color level.  The administration considers a variety of factors including positive cases within each building, classes without substitutes, quarantine rates and county recommendations.  However, these statistics are not incorporated into a formula that dictates a course of action.

“We do not have ‘hard and fast’ rules for determining whether to change educational settings,” Davis said. “Our goal is the same as PEA’s goal of getting back to day-to-day instruction five days per week as soon as possible. The data on our Dashboard is what we monitor, and the COVID-impact rates have stayed well below 3% in our school settings from the onset. Moreover, attendance data has been getting marginally better the last couple of weeks. The data does not support transitioning to all virtual at this time, and we are hopeful that the trend continues towards day-to-day instruction in the next few weeks.”

Of utmost concern to the district is how to get students back on track with attendance and grades.

“At this time, we are addressing our most critical need first, which is failing grades,” Davis said, “However, we are also implementing our regular intervention efforts at all levels for students who are not meeting proficiency levels or who are falling behind in coursework. We’ve seen a significant increase in failing grades at the secondary level in comparison to the previous school year.”

The district will address the issues through normal Response to Intervention (RTI) procedures associated with Attendance Intervention Plans and academic intervention efforts.   

“We have some students that aren’t being successful and it’s our job to reach out to those families and those students to make sure that we get them the intervention that they need,” Briggs said. “Our first level of transitioning back is how to help those students.”

More than 87 percent of the district’s personnel confirmed that they wanted the COVID vaccine.

In an email to employees, Briggs said that all interested staff will be vaccinated in a collaborated effort between the district, local health departments and the educational service centers.

“Thank you for your interest and patience with this process,” Briggs said. “Our primary goal is for everyone who elects to be vaccinated to be provided an opportunity to receive it through our immunization clinic.”

As soon as the county works through the logistics, the employees will be instructed on when and where they can get their shots.

“I want to stress to our staff that they are appreciated, and we make some very difficult decisions sometimes based on the information we have today and that changes on a daily basis,” Briggs said. “Hopefully, the comfort level of our staff, our students and our families will be more at ease once we get the vaccinations.”

While staff vaccinations do impact the plan moving forward, the district still must consider all factors before determining a return date.

“The reality is that even though adults are vaccinated, we still need to monitor the cases with students and how that’s going to impact us moving forward,” Briggs said. “There are a lot of moving pieces right now that we don’t have the answers to.  Everyone wants the answers right now and I get that, but we are going to have to do this the right way.”

Sports and performing arts have resumed with limited audiences, and the schools are considering ways to bring back more opportunities for the students.

“We talked about graduation, we talked about prom, we talked about all those things that our kids are missing or have missed in the past and we just don’t have the answers right now, but we do have hope,” Briggs said. “If we do things the right way between now and then, we could possibly make some of those things happen for our students.”

Board member Vanessa Niekamp said that large gatherings are still not permitted in Ohio.

“Even though we may want to move forward with some of those things, state restrictions will have to come off before we can hold events in venues,” Niekamp said.

Board member Cathy Olshefski questioned whether the community is ready for a complete return to normalcy or if it would be better for the district to take a more gradual approach.

“Do we really want to jump off the deep end of the pool and have 1,000 kids show up at a prom or 4,000 people crammed into World Harvest for a graduation?” Olshefski said. “My two cents is maybe not the deep end of the pool but somewhere in the middle, because while we can talk about statistics all day long and we know for a fact our kids are not being impacted like the adult population, there is a mentality too about what does going back to normalcy look like.  Is it really shoving a thousand people into a room to sweat and dance and do other – you know – inappropriate high school things for a prom?  Did I say that out loud?”

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