Columbus City Schools delaying in-person classes until January as COVID-19 worsens in Ohio

Alissa Widman Neese
The Columbus Dispatch
A classroom sits empty at Southwood Elementary School.  On Tuesday, Columbus City Schools announced the soonest students will be returning to classrooms is mid-January.

Columbus families are making their frustrations known to school officials, after learning Tuesday that plans to bring students back to classrooms would be changing for the fourth time in about a month.

Now children will continue learning online for at least the rest of this semester, which ends Jan. 15. The second semester begins Jan. 19. The decision was made because of increasing spread of COVID-19 in central Ohio and across the state, Columbus City Schools officials said.

Until the update, most families of students in grades K-8 in Ohio's largest school district were preparing for a return to school buildings in early November. 

While she agreed with the district's decision, Marielle Henault, the mother of a second-grader, said the district must "commit to stability" as it crafts and communicates its next moves. 

"We cannot go through this again," Henault, of North Linden, said of the flip-flopping plans, while speaking at a Columbus Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. "It wreaks havoc on our families' jobs and our children's mental health."

In the presentations that followed from Superintendent Talisa Dixon and conversations among school board members, which spanned a few hours, they said often that no decisions are made lightly. 

Teachers continue to instruct students remotely in empty classrooms at Southwood Elementary School.

But, in many cases, how the district communicates changes can improve, Dixon said.

About 1,600 of the district's 50,000 students are not engaged with online learning, which makes the decision to not return even more complicated, she said.

"Do we want to consistently change and consistently upset our parents? No. We want to provide the best educational opportunities for the students and families that we serve," Dixon said. "This is not a perfect time or a perfect solution, but know we're working passionately, with a lot of energy, to get this right."

In the meantime, Dixon said the district will work to reach those missing students, while also occasionally bringing some small groups of students into buildings who would benefit most from in-person learning.

That will start Nov. 2 with two groups. 

One is students in career-technical programs at Columbus Downtown High School and Fort Hayes Career Center, because students in those programs must hone particular skills to receive certification for careers.

The other is some students at all grade levels who receive special education services and have "complex needs."

More groups will be announced soon, she said.

The district will soon evaluate the future of winter sports, according to Tuesday's announcement. Fall sports and other extracurricular activities won't be affected.

Officials from Columbus Public Health will continue to provide guidance, Dixon said.

Last week, Ohio set three record-high days for new cases of COVID-19 and experienced five days with more than 2,000 reported cases. On Oct. 15, the coronavirus advisory level in Franklin County was elevated from a Level 2, or "orange," to a Level 3, or "red," according to the state's four-tiered system.

As of Tuesday, Ohio's hospitals are now caring for more COVID-19 patients than at any time since the coronavirus pandemic began.

More:COVID-19 hospitalizations spike across Ohio; burden on hospitals highest of pandemic

As cases started trending upward, some community members had questioned the district's plans to return to classes.

The Columbus Education Association, the district's 4,000-member teachers union, released a statement early Tuesday, criticizing the move due to safety concerns. It included highlights from a survey of 80% of its membership, in which 30% said the district didn't provide face masks, 37% reported receiving either disinfectant or hand sanitizer, but not both, and 38% said they didn't believe their workspace had been cleaned prior to returning to work at it, as required by the district.

The district disagreed that its buildings are unsafe.

All received face masks, five for each employee, on Aug. 17, and the district has spent $5 million to date on cleaning equipment and supplies and protective equipment, Columbus Board of Education President Jennifer Adair said Tuesday night.

Certain staff members will now be permitted to work remotely again next week, Dixon said. More information is expected by Friday.

John Coneglio, Columbus Education Association president, declined comment Tuesday evening due to the union's ongoing negotiations with the district about its plans.

A group of concerned families that calls itself "Press Pause CCS" had also campaigned against the return to school this semester, and demanded improved communication and transparency from district leaders.

"This is only a step in the right direction to rebuild the trust you've broken," said Columbus Gifted Academy eighth-grader Graciela Leahy, 13, at Tuesday's meeting. Lahey's mother, Elisa Stone Leahy, is one parent leading the charge.

But others, such as parent Ashley Noble, of the Northwest Side, who also spoke Tuesday, said online learning isn't working for all children and many are becoming stressed and disengaged.

"We will never be free of COVID and our children's lives must move on," Noble said. "We don't know the repercussions of this lost time of academic growth and social and emotional development."

Board member James Ragland also expressed concerns about low-income families with inflexible work schedules, who rely on their children being in school to not jeopardize their employment.

"I'm hearing from parents that are facing eviction if their kids don't get back in school," he said.

This is the second time this month the district has delayed its plans for "blended learning," which would have students in grades K-8 attending class twice weekly and spending the other three days learning remotely from home. For now, the plan has always been for high school students to stay at home.

Just three weeks ago, officials had announced a plan to start some in-person classes Oct. 19 — about a week earlier than originally planned.

Then, last week, the district said those students would instead begin classes in early November. Families would spend the extra two weeks participating in optional orientation meetings to prepare for the new learning format. Those meetings have since been postponed, except for students who are now returning on Nov. 2.

The complicated situation isn't unique to the Columbus school district.

Within the past two weeks, at least 16 districts across Ohio have scaled back on in-person schooling as COVID-19 cases rise statewide, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in his Tuesday briefing on the coronavirus pandemic. 

At least 50 of the state's more than 600 districts were learning fully online as of Tuesday, impacting at least 300,000 students, DeWine said.

"It concerns me that so many of our kids are going to school remotely," he said. "While many kids can do well under these circumstances, many cannot."

DeWine pleaded with Ohioans to do their part to keep the virus under control by wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.

"We owe it to our children. We owe it to their future," DeWine said. "We owe it to our state's future, to fight back, to not accept this as something that just has to be. It doesn't have to be this way."