You should know, Columbus taxpayers, that the Columbus City School system is spending your hard-earned money on gaslighting. To be clear, this is not literal lighting that would be part of badly-needed school building maintenance. This is the metaphorical kind, when people in power tell you the truth isn’t real. These people — our school leaders — are attempting to brush aside the dangers of a pandemic and willingly putting the health and safety of 50,000 students and 9,000 teachers and staff at-risk. By default, that risk will spread throughout the community, possibly into your homes. How’s that for a return on investment?
The potential danger comes from the Columbus City School school board and superintendent mandating a return to in-person learning beginning on November 2nd. They are moving forward with this plan against the protests of parents and teachers, even as Franklin County has been designated “red for spread” and the state has broken its own single-day case record three times in just the past week. And while that is infuriating and dangerous, the district has made things even worse by going back on their own definition of what constitutes safe in-person learning during a pandemic.
In a letter to staff this summer, Superintendent Dixon said that one of the important recommendations they were following in the decision to reopen schools was “seeing four consecutive weeks of decreasing number of cases.” A presentation given to parents over the summer about what the return to school might look like listed the level of community spread as orange or lower as one of the overriding factors for consideration. Granted, this wasn’t presented as a final, approved plan. But you could forgive exhausted parents who had been single-handedly entertaining their children 24/7 for four months for missing that detail.
Besides, this was the best information we had when we were asked in late July to make a commitment for the first semester of school — join the still-being-created digital academy that would have students completely remote and working independently until January, or sign up for the blended model, where students would have a class and a teacher. When case levels were too high to meet safely in-person, this class would meet online, and if the safety metrics were met by the end of the first quarter, students and teachers would return to school, with half of the group attending Monday-Tuesday, the other half attending Thursday-Friday, and everyone gathering on Zoom on Wednesdays while the buildings underwent a deep cleaning.
After much deliberation, we chose the hybrid option for our budding second grader. We felt that having a connection with his peers and a teacher — even remotely — would be good for him. More importantly, we were comfortable with the safety plan that the district had presented.
That brings us to today: two weeks out from the end of the first quarter, when things were supposed to be “reevaluated.” In early October, Superintendent Dixon announced that schools would return to hybrid earlier than planned, with the younger grades going back mid-month, leaving some families scrambling to change plans. A subsequent announcement pushed the start date back to its original place, with teachers reporting first so they could reacclimate and lead “orientations” in their buildings. Never mind that teachers have still not received information about what to do during these orientations, or advised as to how they are supposed to lead them while simultaneously teaching remote classes. Orientation week officially begins tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the district announced that class sizes would not be a 50/50 split; they could be uneven as long as they did not exceed 15 students. Some teachers were assigned groups of 15 for the first half of the week and groups of five the second half. Families were told they could not switch to the other group, even though the larger classes significantly increase the risk of spread, to say nothing of the teacher’s resources.
And then, as all this was going on, the surge hit. Cases started climbing across the city, county, and state. We watched our numbers tick upward, our county turn red, and we waited for what we had been told was coming — the postponement of school while our community once again stayed home to get things under control.
For some reason, that hasn’t happened. Instead, without meeting any of the criteria the district itself set forth, school leaders are continuing to push students and teachers back into the classrooms. Without offering an explanation as to what has changed, Superintendent Dixon said in her latest letter, “our current plan to safely transition to blended learning adheres to the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Ohio Department of Health, and Columbus Public Health.”
What are these guidelines? Good luck finding out. The district recently scheduled two family engagement sessions, purportedly to respond to parents’ questions, only to cancel both with little notice. The rescheduled sessions the following week contained a lot of vague language already available on the district website, and few answers to the specific health and safety questions parents anxiously typed into the chat box.
There’s an Emily Dickenson quote I like: “Saying nothing sometimes says the most.” And the district’s silence, in this case, speaks volumes. Are four weeks of declining cases still criteria you are using to determine whether we open? No answer. Will you still be deep cleaning buildings on Wednesdays? No answer. Given that our decision to enroll in the hybrid model was built on false pretenses, will you let us move to the digital academy now? That one has an answer — it’s no — unless you obtain a medical excuse for your child.
Another question that wasn’t answered: How will you handle substitutes? With the inevitability that teachers will be absent — some for long stretches as they quarantine — subs will play an outsized role in making this model work. But right now, the district is woefully short. I suspect staff absences are already increasing because the district is now mandating staff to work from buildings instead of from their homes. In other worlds, after teachers built up their own home Zoom offices, no doubt in many cases at a significant personal expense, they are now required to instruct from empty classrooms — many with spotty wi-fi — all while elevating their own risk of exposure.
In fact, my son will be joining another class’ Zoom on Monday morning because his teacher will be absent, likely for most of the week. Without enough subs, the district’s solution is to divide the kids among the remaining classes in each grade. While it’s difficult that my son will be away from his friends and following yet another new schedule this week, it’s even more problematic when you consider what will happen when a teacher is out once kids return in two weeks. Combining classes will not be an option to maintain social distancing. So, what happens then? Do students sit in a room and watch a teacher across the hall on a school-based Zoom? Do they stay home every time their teacher is out? The fact that the district hasn’t provided an answer to this question is deeply disturbing.
I could go on with the list of parent concerns; it’s a long one. And it’s true that, for many families, continuing fully remote is unsustainable. Kids across the district are missing out on essential services and supports they rely on from schools. I don’t have the answers to all of this, and of course I sympathize that school leadership doesn’t either during this unprecedented time. But forcing all students and staff back into buildings when, by their own definition from just three months ago, it isn’t safe to do so, and pretending that this has been the plan all along? I know that’s not serving anyone.
*Update 10/20/20* — The district announced today that it is reversing course and keeping students remote through the end of the first semester in January. Teachers are still required to work from classrooms.